Read CHAPTER V. THE ENCOUNTER of Mistress Wilding, free online book, by Rafael Sabatini, on ReadCentral.com.

Ruth Wesmacott rode back like one in a dream, with vague and hazy notions of what she saw or did.  So overwrought was she by the interview from which she came, her mind so obsessed by it, that never a thought had she for Diana and her indisposition until she arrived home to find her cousin there before her.  Diana was in tears, called up by the reproaches of her mother, Lady Horton ­the relict of that fine soldier Sir Cholmondeley Horton, of Taunton.

The girl had arrived at Lupton House a half-hour ahead of Miss Westmacott, and upon her arrival she had expressed surprise, either feigned or real, at finding Ruth still absent.  Detecting the alarm that Diana was careful to throw into her voice and manner, her mother questioned her, and elicited the story of her faintness and of Ruth’s having ridden on alone to Mr. Wilding’s.  So outraged was Lady Horton that for once in a way this woman, usually so meek and ease-loving, was roused to an energy and anger with her daughter and her niece that threatened to remove Diana at once from the pernicious atmosphere of Lupton House and carry her home to Taunton.  Ruth found her still at her remonstrances, arrived, indeed, in time for her share of them.

“I have been sore mistaken in you, Ruth!” the dame reproached her.  “I can scarce believe it of you.  I have held you up as an example to Diana, for the discretion and wisdom of your conduct, and you do this!  You go alone to Mr. Wilding’s house ­to Mr. Wilding’s, of all men!”

“It was no time for ordinary measures,” said Ruth, but she spoke without any of the heat of one who defends her conduct.  She was, the slyly watchful Diana observed, very white and tired.  “It was no time to think of nice conduct.  There was Richard to be saved.”

“And was it worth ruining yourself to do that?” quoth Lady Horton, her colour high.

“Ruining myself?” echoed Ruth, and she smiled never so weary a smile.  “I have, indeed, done that, though not in the way you mean.”

Mother and daughter eyed her, mystified.  “Your good name is blasted,” said her aunt, “unless so be that Mr. Wilding is proposing to make you his wife.”  It was a sneer the good woman could not, in her indignation, repress.

“That is what Mr. Wilding has done me the honour to propose,” Ruth answered bitterly, and left them gaping.  “We are to be married this day se’night.”

A dead silence followed the calm announcement.  Then Diana rose.  At the misery, the anguish that could impress so strange and white a look on Ruth’s winsome face, she was smitten with remorse, her incipient satisfaction dashed.  This was her work; the fruit of her scheming.  But it had gone further than she had foreseen; and for all that no result could better harmonize with her own ambitions and desires, for the moment ­under the first shock of that announcement ­she felt guilty and grew afraid.

“Ruth!” she cried, her voice a whisper of stupefaction.  “Oh, I wish I had come with you!”

“But you couldn’t; you were faint.”  And then ­recalling what had passed ­her mind was filled with sudden concern for Diana, even amid her own sore troubles.  “Are you quite yourself again, Diana?” she inquired.

Diana answered almost fiercely, “I am quite well.”  And then, with a change to wistfulness, she added, “Oh, I would I had come with you!”

“Matters had been no different,” Ruth assured her.  “It was a bargain Mr. Wilding drove.  It was the price I had to pay for Richard’s life and honour.”  She swallowed hard, and let her hands fall limply to her sides.  “Where is Richard?” she inquired.

It was her aunt who answered her.  “He went forth half an hour agone with Mr. Vallancey and Sir Rowland.”

“Sir Rowland had returned, then?” She looked up quickly.

“Yes,” answered Diana.  “But he had achieved nothing by his visit to Lord Gervase.  His lordship would not intervene; he swore he hoped the cub would be flayed alive by Wilding.  Those were his lordship’s words, as Sir Rowland repeated them.  Sir Rowland is in sore distress for Richard.  He has gone with them to the meeting.”

“At least, he has no longer cause for his distress,” said Miss Westmacott with her bitter smile, and sank as one exhausted to a chair.  Lady Horton moved to comfort her, her motherliness all aroused for this motherless girl, usually so wise and strong, and seemingly wiser and stronger than ever in this thing that Lady Horton had deemed a weakness and a folly.

Meanwhile, Richard and his two friends were on their way to the moors across the river to the encounter with Mr. Wilding.  But before they had got him to ride forth, Vallancey had had occasion to regret that he stood committed to a share in this quarrel, for he came to know Richard as he really was.  He had found him in an abject state, white and trembling, his coward’s fancy anticipating a hundred times a minute the death he was anon to die.

Vallancey had hailed him cheerily.

“The day is yours, Dick,” he had cried, when Richard entered the library where he awaited him.  “Wild Wilding has ridden to Taunton this morning and is to be back by noon.  Odsbud, Dick! ­twenty miles and more in the saddle before coming on the ground.  Heard you ever of the like madness?  He’ll be stiff as a broom-handle ­an easy victim.”

Richard listened, stared, and, finding Vallancey’s eyes fixed steadily upon him, attempted a smile and achieved a horrible grimace.

“What ails you, man?” cried his second, and caught him by the wrist.  He felt the quiver of the other’s limb.  “Stab me!” quoth he, “you are in no case to fight.  What the plague ails you?”

“I am none so well this morning,” answered Richard feebly.  “Lord Gervase’s claret,” he added, passing a hand across his brow.

“Lord Gervase’s claret?” echoed Vallancey in horror, as at some outrageous blasphemy.  “Frontignac at ten shillings the bottle!” he exclaimed.

“Still, claret never does lie easy on my stomach,” Richard explained, intent upon blaming Lord Gervase s wine ­since he could think of nothing else ­for his condition.

Vallancey looked at him shrewdly.  “My cock,” said he, “if you’re to fight we’ll have to mend your temper.”  He took it upon himself to ring the bell, and to order up two bottles of Canary and one of brandy.  If he was to get his man to the ground at all ­and young Vallancey had a due sense of his responsibilities in that connection ­it would be well to supply Richard with something to replace the courage that had oozed out overnight.  Young Richard, never loath to fortify himself, proved amenable enough to the stiffly laced Canary that his friend set before him.  Then, to divert his mind, Vallancey, with that rash freedom that had made the whole of Somerset know him for a rebel, set himself to talk of the Protestant Duke and his right to the crown of England.

He was still at his talk, Richard listening moodily what time he was slowly but surely befuddling himself, when Sir Rowland ­returning from Scoresby Hall ­came to bring the news of his lack of success.  Richard hailed him noisily, and bade him ring for another glass, adding, with a burst of oaths, some appalling threats of how anon he should serve Anthony Wilding.  His wits drowned in the stiff liquor Vallancey had pressed upon him, he seemed of a sudden to have grown as fierce and bloodthirsty as any scourer that ever terrorized the watch.

Blake listened to him and grunted.  “Body o’ me!” swore the town gallant.  “If that’s the humour you’re going out to fight in, I’ll trouble you for the eight guineas I won from you at Primero yesterday before you start.”

Richard reared himself, by the help of the table, and stood a thought unsteadily, his glance laboriously striving to engage Blake’s.

“Damn me!” quoth he.  “Your want of faith dishgraces me ­and ’t ’shgraces you.  Shalt ha’ the guineas when we’re back ­and not before.”

“Hum!” quoth Blake, to whom eight guineas were a consideration in these bankrupt days.  “And if you don’t come back at all upon whom am I to draw?”

The suggestion sank through Dick’s half-fuddled senses, and the scare it gave him was reflected on his face.

“Damn you, Blake!” swore Vallancey between his teeth.  “Is that a decent way to talk to a man who is going out?  Never heed him, Dick!  Let him wait for his dirty guineas till we return.”

“Thirty guineas?” hiccoughed Richard.  “It was only eight.  Anyhow ­wait’ll I’ve sli’ the gullet of’s Mr. Wilding.”  He checked on a thought that suddenly occurred to him.  He turned to Vallancey with a ludicrous solemnity. “’Sbud!” he swore. “’S a scurvy trick I’m playing the Duke.  ’S treason to him ­treason no less.”  And he smote the table with his open hand.

“What’s that?” quoth Blake so sharply, his eyes so suddenly alert that Vallancey made haste to cover up his fellow rebel’s indiscretion.

“It’s the brandy-and-Canary makes him dream,” said he with a laugh, and rising as he spoke he announced that it was high time they should set out.  Thus he brought about a bustle that drove the Duke’s business from Richard’s mind, and left Blake without a pretext to pursue his quest for information.  But the mischief was done, and Blake’s suspicions were awake.  He bethought him now of dark hints that Richard had let fall to Vallancey in the past few days, and of hints less dark with which Vallancey ­who was a careless fellow at ordinary times ­had answered.  And now this mention of the Duke and of treason to him ­to what Duke could it refer but Monmouth?

Blake was well aware of the wild tales that were going round, and he began to wonder now was aught really afoot, and was his good friend Westmacott in it?

If there was, he bethought him that the knowledge might be of value, and it might help to float once more his shipwrecked fortunes.  The haste with which Vallancey had proffered a frivolous explanation of Richard’s words, the bustle with which upon the instant he swept Richard and Sir Rowland from the house to get to horse and ride out to Bridgwater were in themselves circumstances that went to heighten those suspicions of Sir Rowland’s.  But lacking all opportunity for investigation at the moment, he deemed it wisest to say no more just then lest he should betray his watchfulness.

They were the first to arrive upon the ground ­an open space on the borders of Sedgemoor, in the shelter of Polden Hill.  But they had not long to wait before Wilding and Trenchard rode up, attended by a groom.  Their arrival had an oddly sobering effect upon young Westmacott, for which Mr. Vallancey was thankful.  For during their ride he had begun to fear that he had carried too far the business of equipping his principal with artificial valour.

Trenchard came forward to offer Vallancey the courteous suggestion that Mr. Wilding’s servant should charge himself with the care of the horses of Mr. Westmacott’s party, if this would be a convenience to them.  Vallancey thanked him and accepted the offer, and thus the groom ­instructed by Trenchard ­led the five horses some distance from the spot.

It now became a matter of making preparation, and leaving Richard to divest himself of such garments as he might deem cumbrous, Vallancey went forward to consult with Trenchard upon the choice of ground.  At that same moment Mr. Wilding lounged forward, flicking the grass with his whip in an absent manner.

 “Mr. Vallancey,” he began, when Trenchard turned to interrupt him.

“You can leave it safely to me, Tony,” he growled.  “But there is something I wish to say, Nick,” answered Mr. Wilding, his manner mild.  “By your leave, then.”  And he turned again to Valiancey.  “Will you be so good as to call Mr. Westmacott hither?”

Vallancey stared.  “For what purpose, sir?” he asked.

“For my purpose,” answered Mr. Wilding sweetly.  “It is no longer my wish to engage with Mr. Westmacott.

“Anthony!” cried Trenchard, and in his amazement forgot to swear.

“I propose,” added Mr. Wilding, “to relieve Mr. Westmacott of the necessity of fighting.”

Vallancey in his heart thought this might be pleasant news for his principal.  Still, he did not quite see how the end was to be attained, and said so.

“You shall be enlightened if you will do as I request,” Wilding insisted, and Vallancey, with a lift of the brows, a snort, and a shrug, turned away to comply.

“Do you mean,” quoth Trenchard, bursting with indignation, “that you will let live a man who has struck you?”

Wilding took his friend affectionately by the arm.  “It is a whim of mine,” said he.  “Do you think, Nick, that it is more than I can afford to indulge?”

“I say not so,” was the ready answer; “but...”

“I thought you’d not,” said Mr. Wilding, interrupting.  “And if any does ­why, I shall be glad to prove it upon him that he lies.”  He laughed, and Trenchard, vexed though he was, was forced to laugh with him.  Then Nick set himself to urge the thing that last night had plagued his mind:  that this Richard might prove a danger to the Cause; that in the Duke’s interest, if not to safeguard his own person from some vindictive betrayal, Wilding would be better advised in imposing a reliable silence upon him.

“But why vindictive?” Mr. Wilding remonstrated.  “Rather must he have cause for gratitude.”

Mr. Trenchard laughed short and contemptuously.  “There is,” said he, “no rancour more bitter than that of the mean man who has offended you and whom you have spared.  I beg you’ll ponder it.”  He lowered his voice as he ended his admonition, for Vallancey and Westmacott were coming up, followed by Sir Rowland Blake.

Richard, although his courage had been sinking lower and lower in a measure as he had grown more and more sober with the approach of the moment for engaging, came forward now with a firm step and an arrogant mien; for Vallancey had given him more than a hint of what was toward.  His heart had leapt, not only at the deliverance that was promised him, but out of satisfaction at the reflection of how accurately last night he had gauged what Mr. Wilding would endure.  It had dismayed him then, as we have seen, that this man who, he thought, must stomach any affront from him out of consideration for his sister, should have ended by calling him to account.  He concluded now that upon reflection Wilding had seen his error, and was prepared to make amends that he might extricate himself from an impossible situation, and Richard blamed himself for having overlooked this inevitable solution and given way to idle panic.

Vallancey and Blake watching him, and the sudden metamorphosis that was wrought in him, despised him heartily, and yet were glad ­for the sake of their association with him ­that things were as they were.

“Mr. Westmacott,” said Wilding quietly, his eyes steadily set upon Richard’s own arrogant gaze, his lips smiling a little, “I am here not to fight, but to apologize.”

Richard’s sneer was audible to all.  Oh, he was gathering courage fast now that there no longer was the need for it.  It urged him to lengths of daring possible only to a fool.

“If you can take a blow, Mr. Wilding,” said he offensively, “that is your own affair.”

And his friends gasped at his temerity and trembled for him, not knowing what grounds he had for counting himself unassailable.

“Just so,” said Mr. Wilding, as meek and humble as a nun, and Trenchard, who had expected something very different from him, swore aloud and with some circumstance of oaths.  “The fact is,” continued Mr. Wilding, “that what I did last night, I did in the heat of wine, and I am sorry for it.  I recognize that this quarrel is of my provoking; that it was unwarrantable in me to introduce the name of Mistress Westmacott, no matter how respectfully; and that in doing so I gave Mr. Westmacott ample grounds for offence.  For that I beg his pardon, and I venture to hope that this matter need go no further.”

Vallancey and Blake were speechless in astonishment; Trenchard livid with fury.  Westmacott moved a step or two forward, a swagger unmistakable in his gait, his nether-lip thrust out in a sneer.

“Why,” said he, his voice mighty disdainful, “if Mr. Wilding apologizes, the matter hardly can go further.”  He conveyed such a suggestion of regret at this that Trenchard bounded forward, stung to speech.

“But if Mr. Westmacott’s disappointment threatens to overwhelm him,” he snapped, very tartly, “I am his humble servant, and he may call upon me to see that he’s not robbed of the exercise he came to take.”

Mr. Wilding set a restraining hand upon Trenchard’s arm.

Westmacott turned to him, the sneer, however, gone from his face.

“I have no quarrel with you, sir,” said he, with an uneasy assumption of dignity.

“It’s a want that may be soon supplied,” answered Trenchard briskly, and, as he afterwards confessed, had not Wilding checked him at that moment, he had thrown his hat in Richard’s face.

It was Vallancey who saved the situation, cursing in his heart the bearing of his principal.

“Mr. Wilding,” said he, “this is very handsome in you.  You are of the happy few who may tender such an apology without reflection upon your courage.”

Mr. Wilding made him a leg very elegantly.  “You are vastly kind, sir,” said he.

“You have given Mr. Westmacott the fullest satisfaction, and it is with an increased respect for you ­if that were possible ­that I acknowledge it on my friend’s behalf.”

“You are, sir, a very mirror of the elegancies,” said Mr. Wilding, and Vallancey wondered was he being laughed at.  Whether he was or not, he conceived that he had done the only seemly thing.  He had made handsome acknowledgment of a handsome apology, stung to it by the currishness of Richard.

And there the matter ended, despite Trenchard’s burning eagerness to carry it himself to a different consummation.  Wilding prevailed upon him, and withdrew him from the field.  But as they rode back to Zoyland Chase the old rake was bitter in his inveighings against Wilding’s folly and weakness.

“I pray Heaven,” he kept repeating, “that it may not come to cost you dear.”

“Have done,” said Mr. Wilding, a trifle out of patience.  “Could I wed the sister having slain the brother?”

And Trenchard, understanding at last, accounted himself a numskull that he had not understood before.  But he none the less deemed it a pity Richard had been spared.