Read CHAPTER IX - FARE WELL TO HOME. of Tom Tufton Travels, free online book, by Evelyn Everett-Green, on ReadCentral.com.

“My lord,” said Tom, “I am but a country squire’s son.  I am no fit guest for the house of a duke.  I pray you let me turn aside, and go visit mine own home, and say farewell to mine own people.  If, as you say, we shall speedily be sent forth upon some errand of peril, I would fain kiss my mother once again before parting.  I have not been to her as good a son as I should wish.  Let me ask her pardon, and show her that I have not forgotten her, ere we fare forth on our mission.”

Tom and his companion were drawing near to the Duke’s property of Holywell, when Tom suddenly burst out with these words.  He had begun to feel a sort of proud, shy shrinking from thrusting himself, even as invited guest, into the house of the great Marlborough.  Moreover, the sight of the familiar country ­for he had been wont to pay visits afore times to St. Albans ­had awakened in him memories of the life which now seemed so very far distant, together with more tender thoughts of mother and sister than he had ever felt towards them in the days of old.

“I would meet you in three days’ time wherever you would appoint me,” he added, as Lord Claud remained silent and thoughtful; and there was a note of pleading in his voice which showed how much bent he was upon this visit of farewell.  “You have said you do not look to be less than three days at Holywell.  I pray you spare me for this last farewell.”

Lord Claud’s face softened, as though he felt sympathy for Tom’s eager desire.  He spoke kindly and thoughtfully.

“In sooth, I see no objection,” he replied.  “It is to me that the Duke must impart his wishes, as you know nought of foreign lands or tongues.  A stout and trusty comrade I need to take with me; but it is not necessary, so far as I see, for us both to wait upon the Duke.  Belike, too, he may be busy, and it may be I shall have to wait his leisure; or he may himself have to wait for despatches from abroad ere he can give me mine.  So do you take your ease at your home of Gablehurst; and when I have received instruction, I will, by your leave, join you there.  We shall certainly cross the sea to Holland; for we must not adventure ourselves in the hostile ports of France.  So ’twill all be in my way for the coast; and perchance your good mother will afford me the shelter of her friendly roof for one night.”

Tom’s face lighted up as though a sunbeam had touched it.

“For a dozen, my lord, if you will thus far favour us!  In sooth, I thank you heartily for this grace.  The village of Gablethorpe is well known to some persons even in these parts; and Gablehurst is the largest house in the place.  A hearty welcome will be yours, my lord, whenever you arrive there.”

“Thanks, good Tom.  I doubt it not if thy folks are of thine own trusting kidney.  And hark ye, look well to the mare Nell Gwynne; let her be well fed and well tended, for it may well be that she has hard times before her.  If we have to cross the sea on urgent business, I shall do my best to take our good steeds with us.  Dutch nags may be strong, but I would sooner feel the English blood stirring beneath me.  Besides, in matters where despatch and caution are needed, it is half the battle to have a horse who has been trained under one’s own eye.  They have ways with them that can be of vast use in moments of peril, and will brook no strange riders on their backs.  See to the mare, Tom, and do well by her; for it may be that thy very life may hang one day upon her speed and strength!”

Tom felt the blood tingling in his veins.

“I will not forget your charge, my lord.”

“And now, what will you do, Tom?  Will you sleep one night at Holywell?  For I would not have you adventure yourself alone in the forest at dark; and you must needs pass through a part of it to reach your destination.”

“No, my lord, nor I either, after what I experienced there before.  But hard by here is the house of a friend.  I would gladly turn in thither; and tomorrow he will certainly ride with me through the forest and homewards.  Doubtless, too, when you have to pass that way, the Duke will give you escort till you near our friendly village.”

So the matter was thus arranged to the satisfaction of Tom; and almost immediately the two companions parted company, the country here being safe and fairly populated.  Before long Tom found himself knocking at the gate of an old friend of his, who gave him hearty and boisterous welcome.

It was with strange feelings next day that he found himself riding along the familiar track which led straight to the village of Gablethorpe!  It was only three months since he had left the place, but he felt as though full as many years had passed over his head.

He was not very finely dressed; but there was a style about his London-made riding suit which his country clothes had lacked, and the peruke upon his head gave him the air of a fine gentleman.  He noted with amusement that some of the rustics who gaped at him as he passed did not recognize him, although he knew them well.  If he had been riding Wildfire they would have known the horse; but now both steed and rider seemed strange to them.

Then as he rode at a foot pace through the village, smiling at sight of the familiar places and faces (his friend had turned back when they had passed the limits of the forest, and had ridden home with his servant, not to be belated), one of the women at the cottage doors smote her hands together and cried: 

“Bless us all! if it bean’t Master Tom hisself!”

“Golly! and so it be!” cried her husband, who was just coming in from the fields; and the next minute Tom was surrounded by a gaping, admiring crowd, all eager to give him welcome, and wonder at the fine figure he cut amongst them.

The restiveness of the mare shortened the greetings of the rustics; for Nell Gwynne was not accustomed to being so surrounded, and showed a disposition to lay about her with her heels, or to rear and strike out with her forefeet.  These manoeuvres soon scattered the crowd, and Tom rode on, laughing and waving his hand; whilst the fleet-footed of the village urchins started in a beeline across the meadows for Gablehurst, knowing that the lady there would certainly bestow a silver groat upon him who first brought the news that Master Tom was at hand!

So when Tom rode up the avenue towards the fine old gabled house, which had never looked so pleasant to him as in the evening glow of this January afternoon, mother and sister were out upon the steps waiting for him; and the servants were assembling from within and without to give him a hearty cheer, and receive his kindly smile and greeting in reply.

His mother folded him in her arms, with the tears running down her cheeks.  She had only heard once from him all these months; for the letter he had sent at Christmas time had never found its way through the snow drifts of the forest.  Tom kissed mother and sister with real feeling, and then turned aside to give minute instructions and warnings with regard to the mare, who was put into the care of the old servant who had most experience in the matter of horse flesh, and felt no uneasiness at the vagaries and tantrums of her ladyship.

Then Tom turned to enter the familiar hall, his hand upon his mother’s shoulder, Rachel clinging to his other arm.

“O Tom!” she cried, “have you come back to us for good?  Have you had enough of gay London town?”

There was already a traveller’s meal set out in the warm south parlour, and the servants were hurrying to and fro with eager zeal and excitement.  Tom was pushed into a seat by his sister, and helped with no unsparing hand; whilst the mother hung over him, eager not to lose a single word.

“Yes, truly, for the time being I have had enough of London town,” answered Tom; “although it is a monstrous fine city, and I should well like to see it again, as indeed I may.  But for the moment I am on my way to foreign lands, as my father wished.  I am like to have work to do there for my lord of Marlborough, whose coming to this country has set all the town in a commotion, as perchance you have heard.”

They had heard something of it even at Gablehurst; and Rachel eagerly asked Tom if he had seen the great Duke.

“Oh, many times,” answered Tom, with the complacency of one who feels himself a great man in his present surroundings.  “I witnessed many pageants in which he took part; and I was of the same company at the house of my Lord Craven, and was presented to him, and had speech with him!”

Mother and sister were impressed and surprised; but yet Tom was so great a personage in their estimation that perhaps they took this piece of news more quietly than more enlightened dames would have done.  They made him tell his story from end to end, sitting with his feet towards the hearth, the cheery glow of the fire warming his limbs and imparting a sense of well-being and homelike comfort.

“And who is this Lord Claud, who has shown you so much kindness?” asked the mother, when the outlines of the story at least had become known to them.

“That I cannot rightly tell you,” answered Tom; “there is some mystery about his birth and name.  He goes everywhere, and is received by the best and finest people of the town, short of the court circle.  And even my lord of Marlborough exchanged civilities with him, and let him present me as his friend.  But more than that I cannot tell you, nor can any man in town.  If it be a secret, it is mightily well kept.  All have heard of Lord Claud; but none know more of him than his name.”

“That seems a strange thing,” said Rachel.

“Not more strange than half the things one sees and hears in the world,” answered Tom, with the air of a man of vast experiences, as indeed he felt himself to be in this company.

Nor did the pleasant feeling wear off with the rapid flight of days.  He was courted, and feted, and made much of by rich and poor alike.  All the gentry of the neighbourhood came flocking to see him; and his old companions, hanging about the stable yard, not daring to present themselves at the house, would beg for a word with Master Tom, and feel themselves quite uplifted and glorified when he came out to them, and stood in their midst, smiling and jovial, but with a something now in his appearance and bearing which seemed to put a great gulf betwixt him and them.

All this was mighty pleasant for Master Tom, though perhaps not the most salutary experience for him.  He had felt qualms of penitence and remorse as he rode homewards, thinking of his follies and weaknesses in the past, ashamed of the class of comrades he had affected then, ashamed of the fashion in which he had spent his days, and of the indifference he had shown to his parents.

But the reception accorded him had dimmed these healthy sentiments, and given him the idea that he was a mighty fine fellow and a great man in his way.  He no longer craved the rule at Gablehurst; he had ambitions of another sort.  He must see the world first, and drink the cup of pleasure to the dregs.  Gablehurst was all very well as a resting place for him when he had had enough of travel, of adventure, of the gay and rollicking life of the town; but for the present let his mother reign there undisturbed.  He had no wish to do so.

Therefore he found it easy to be loving and gentle and kindly towards her and Rachel.  Indeed, Rachel seemed to him a more attractive maiden than she had ever been before.  She had smiles for him, where once she had only grave looks of disapproval; and she delighted in his stories almost as much as Rosamund Cale had done.  Altogether, this visit was a mighty pleasant one for Tom; and it lasted for ten whole days before the news was brought to him that a strange gentleman had ridden up and was asking for him, and he knew that Lord Claud had come to fetch him.

Tom had had the prudence to say very little about their purpose in going abroad.  His mother and sister knew that it had some connection with the war, and that the Duke of Marlborough was going to send some despatches by them; but he told them not to name even this fact to the neighbours, and he had not mentioned to them the mysterious words “secret service.”

When he reached the hall door, there was Lord Claud mounted upon the black horse Lucifer, who looked in tip-top condition.  Mrs. Tufton and Rachel had come out to welcome Tom’s friend, and the rider was sitting bare headed in the afternoon sunlight, looking mightily handsome and gallant.

“Ah, good Tom, so you are e’en at hand when wanted.  I have been detained somewhat longer than I thought; but all is in readiness now for a start for the port of Harwich.  Have you got yourself and Nell into first-class condition? for we have work before us, my lad.”

“But, sir, you will not surely start today, with the shades of evening drawing on so fast?” pleaded Mrs. Tufton, who felt a sinking at heart in the thought of parting from her son again.  “You will lie here for one night at least, and start forth with the day before instead of behind you?”

“If you will favour me with so much hospitality, gracious madam, I should be glad to do so,” answered Lord Claud with a courtly bow; and in another minute his horse was being led away to the stables, and he was following the ladies into the house, speaking so many words of well-chosen admiration for the quaint old manor and the fine meadowland and timber trees about it, that Tom was prouder of his home than he had ever been before, and even of the mother and sister who dwelt there.  For Lord Claud paid them as much attention, and gave them as courtly treatment, as though they had been the highest ladies in the land; and it seemed as though their native refinement and tact enabled them to make fitting reply to him, and to show a certain simple dignity of mien which Tom had never troubled himself to observe in them before.

He observed now that Rachel was a very handsome girl, rather like himself in feature, but with more refinement of aspect and more thoughtfulness of disposition.  This thoughtfulness gave a depth to her eyes and a piquancy to her talk which Tom noted with surprise and admiration; and he was well pleased that both his home and his womenfolk pleased his friend so well.

Mrs. Tufton would fain have learned something of the nature of the errand upon which her son was to start upon the morrow; but Lord Claud fenced cleverly with her questions, and, whilst seeming to reply to them, left her little the wiser.  They were going to take ship for Holland, and thence make their way with despatches to one of the allies of the Duke; so much he let them freely know.  And when she asked if there were peril to face, he laughed lightly as he replied: 

“Madam, there is always peril to be faced whether we bide at home or travel beyond seas.  Your son Tom met more peril in the forest only a few short miles from home, than he has encountered in that great Babylon of London.  It is so with us all.  Ofttimes those that stay snug and safe at home meet with some mishap, whilst the rovers come back safe and sound.  No life can be without its perils; but I have come through so many unscathed, that I have learned not to fear them beforehand.”

“And Tom at least will be serving his country,” said Rachel; “and that is a thousand times better than receiving hurt when in search after idle pleasures.”

Lord Claud bowed to her across the table as he replied: 

“You speak a great truth, fair lady.  We do indeed go forth upon the service of our country, and of the great Duke, who is a master to be trusted and obeyed.  He is never reckless.  He never throws away lives needlessly.  Never was general in battle so tender for the wounded as he.  His first thought after a fight is for his injured soldiers; and he looks personally after the arrangements for their comfort.  This fact should be enough to show you that he is careful of human life, and would not intrust men with missions that are too perilous to be successfully carried out.”

Mother and sister took heart at this, and trusted to see Tom return safe and sound from his present journey.

This farewell was more easily gone through than the last, although Tom felt a keener sense of affection for his relatives than he had done on the first occasion, and a greater affection for his home.  But he had made trial of a new life now, and was full of hopeful confidence; and both mother and sister had begun to believe in him, and had shown pride and satisfaction in his career.

So they rode forth in the first sunshine of a bright February morning, with three stout serving men from Gablehurst to attend them as far as Harwich.  Lord Claude was willing to accept the escort, as the road was unfamiliar to him, and he wanted no needless delays along the route.

Rachel brought the stirrup cup, and the household assembled to cheer the travellers as they rode away.  There were tears in the mother’s eyes, but she smiled and waved her hand bravely.  The horses were in first-rate condition, and full of life and spirit.  They were delighted to find themselves travelling side by side again; and the riders were pretty well occupied for the first few miles of the road in curbing their gay spirits.

They had plenty of time to get to Harwich before the light failed them, and the servants knew the road and the best inns to bait at.  The journey was performed without misadventure; and Tom dismissed his retainers when he and his companion were safely installed in a good inn upon the quay, as the servants intended making one or two stages on the homeward road before stopping for the night.

Lord Claud had gone straight down to the harbour so soon as they arrived, leaving Tom to make arrangements for the night.  So far he had said almost nothing as to the errand upon which they were bent, and Tom had asked no questions, knowing he should be told what was needful in due time.  So when he had ordered a plentiful supper, he strolled out upon the quay, and presently saw his comrade returning with a satisfied look upon his face.

“Well, Tom, we are in luck’s way.  There is a skipper in harbour who has unshipped his cargo, and is going back almost empty by the morning’s tide.  He is glad enough to take us and our good horses safely across to Rotterdam; and, with the light, favouring breeze that has been blowing steadily these last three days, he declares we ought to make the anchorage there before nightfall.  With the sea as smooth as this, too, I am not afraid to adventure the horses; which I should be were a gale to blow.”

“Do they suffer from seasickness?” asked Tom.

“Ay, from the nausea of it,” answered Lord Claud; “but the relief that we can gain by sickness is impossible to them, and therefore they must needs die if things be too bad with them.  But if the weather change not ­and there looks no fear of that ­we shall have a swift and prosperous voyage; so now let us to supper, and I will tell you more of what lies before us.”

But as it turned out, there were too many other guests at the table for private talk to be possible; and only when on board the good sloop Marlborough did Tom hear anything of the details of the projected expedition.

It was a clear, promising morning, a light breeze blowing from the west, but the sea still and smooth, only dimpling with the puffs of wind.  Tom stood on board beside the horses, soothing their fears at the strange sights and sounds about them, his own heart beating somewhat high with excitement at the thought of putting to sea for the first time.

The sailors were busy hauling in ropes, singing and shouting.  The vessel gave a little start and shiver, there was a rattle of canvas overhead, and a gentle lurching movement.  Then the shore seemed suddenly to be slipping away; and Tom knew, with a start of surprise and exhilaration, that they were off upon their voyage to unknown lands.

Presently the horses grew calm and quiet, used to their strange surroundings, and willing to nibble at the heap of fragrant hay put down at their feet.  Tom was able to leave them with a clear conscience, and came over to where Lord Claud was standing in the fore part of the vessel, watching the sheets of green water that fell away from the prow as the sloop cut her way through the waves.

“Well, friend Tom, so we are off at last.”

“Yes, my lord; but I have not heard yet whither.”

“No; and, like a wise and prudent fellow, have not desired to know too much.  You are a model of patience, Tom ­an excellent companion to have.  But the time has come when I can safely enlighten you as far as you need be enlightened.  I shall not tell you all I know; for, in truth, you would not understand it.”

“That may very well be,” answered Tom humbly.

“But I will tell you this much, Tom; we are bound upon an errand of peril.  We have some difficult journeyings to make, and there will be certain persons lying in wait for messengers from Marlborough; and we may be sore beset to avoid them.  Tom, do you remember the tall dark man with whom my duel was fought?”

“Sir James?”

“That is the name by which he goes in England.  He passes there as one Sir James Montacute, a man of bravery and wealth.  But there is another side to the picture.  That man, Tom, is a spy, and in the pay of the King of France.  If I had known as much that day as I have since learned from his Grace the Duke, methinks I should not have left him alive upon the field.  Tom, we shall probably have to measure our wits against his in a duel of another sort ere long.”

Tom threw back his head with a defiant gesture.

“Well, my lord; and I am ready!” he said.

“Very good, Tom; I thought as much.  You did not love our dark-skinned friend much better than I did.  I think we shall find him lurking in wait for us somewhere amid the snows of the St. Bernard Pass.  Hast ever heard of the St. Bernard, Tom, and the good monks there?”

“I think I have,” answered Tom, who had heard so many new things of late that he could not be expected to keep them all in mind together.

“Well, it may be we shall have to seek their hospitality yet; although our way lies across the Little St. Bernard, as it is called, that ancient pass which Hannibal and his host crossed when they marched through the snows of Switzerland to pour themselves upon the fertile plains of Italy.  It is to this very day the only route by which those snowy Alps may be crossed; and we must find our way thither, Tom, and go down to the fair city of Turin.”

“Is that where we are going?”

“Ay; hast heard of Victor Amadeus, Duke of Savoy?”

“Is he not one of the Allies?”

“Yes; albeit for a while he sided with the French King, who did much to hold his fidelity.  But now he is one of the Allies, and he is sore beset by the armies of Louis.  The King of Prussia is about to send relief; but His Majesty is tardy, and the snows of winter lie thick in his land, hindering rapid action.  It is our part to take the Duke news of the welcome aid, and of other matters I need not be particular to name; and we shall need all our wits about us to carry this matter to a successful issue.”

“You mean that the pass will be watched?”

“Yes; we shall be certain to fall in with spies of the French King, perhaps with Sir James himself.  He has left England, so much is known; and though he may be at the court of France, yet it may be our hap to light upon him at any time.  He is a man of cunning and resource and ferocity.  We shall want our best wits and our best swordsmanship if we are to cope with him.”

Tom’s eyes sparkled with excitement and joy.

“And is the mountain pass the only way of getting into Italy, for I have heard that Savoy lies in that land?” said Tom.

“Ay; Italy has had its strange vicissitudes of fortune, and has been divided and redivided into duchies and kingdoms, till it needs a clever scholar to tell her history aright.  But it is enough for our purpose that Savoy lies just beneath those grim mountains which we must scale; and that for the present no other entrance is possible.”

“But there are other ways then?”

“Why, yes, we could at other times go by sea; but now that the Spaniards are seeking to win back the rock of Gibraltar, which we have lately reft from them, and which Marlborough says must never be yielded up again, we cannot safely try that way; for we might well fall into the hands of some Spanish vessel, and languish, unknown and uncared for, in Spanish dungeons.  We cannot travel through France, and reach it from the shores of Genoa; because it were too great peril for Englishmen to ride through the dominions of the French monarch.  So we must needs land at some friendly Dutch port, and ride through their country, and so into Westphalia, and thence to these mountain regions which cut us off from our destination.

“Have you ever seen snow mountains, Tom, towering to the very skies in virgin whiteness, with the rivers of ice, miles in width, flowing silently down their rocky sides?  It is a strange and marvellous sight when viewed for the first time.  I could find it in my heart to wish I stood in your shoes, that all these new things might be seen and heard for the first time!”

“And I would that I knew more of these strange lands, and the ways of the people there,” answered Tom; “for I fear me lest mine ignorance may lead us into peril.  But if such a thing as that were to befall, I would lay down my life to save yours, my lord.”

“I believe you, Tom,” answered the other very gravely.  He was silent a while, and then he said slowly, “Tom, I am going to say a strange thing to yon ­at least it would sound strange to some; and, indeed, I should not dare to say it to every companion in peril.  But I believe you to be stanch and true.”

“I trust you will ever find me so, my lord.”

“Well, Tom, this is the word that I would say to you.  It may chance that things come to this pass with us, that one of us twain must needs fall into the hands of the enemy, and die; for there is little hope of any other end when that befalls.  And if we know and can so arrange matters, it must be you and not I who will fall into that peril.”

Tom looked back without flinching.

“You speak well, my lord,” he said.  “It must be my lot to die.  You will not find me hold back when the moment comes.”

Lord Claud took his hand and held it in both of his.

“It must be you, Tom; and yet I would rather it were myself.  But I have that intrusted to me which I must speak in the Duke’s ear.  The despatches are as little compared with what I have had from Marlborough’s own lips ­what may not be trusted upon paper.  Moreover, I could find my way through the countries, where you would be lost for lack of words to ask your way.  If one of us has to be delivered over to death, it must be you.”

“It must.  I see it well.”

“Yet we may both succeed in getting through, or we may both leave our bones lying amid the eternal snows.  Perhaps in years to come it will matter little enough.  Just now it seems a matter of more importance.  But I have told you this to show my trust in you, Tom.  There are not many comrades to whom I could have thus unburdened myself.  I should have had to use subtlety where now I use truth and openness.”

“You shall not find me fail you, my lord,” answered Tom.