Read CHAPTER XVIII.  BETRAYAL of Mistress Wilding, free online book, by Rafael Sabatini, on ReadCentral.com.

Still smarting under the cavalier treatment he had received, Mr. Wilding came forth from the Castle to find Trenchard awaiting him among the crowd of officers and men that thronged the yard.

Nick linked his arm through his friend’s and led him away.  They quitted the place in silence, and in silence took their way south towards the High Street, Nick waiting for Mr. Wilding to speak, Mr. Wilding’s mind still in turmoil at the things he had endured.  At last Nick halted suddenly and looked keenly at his friend in the failing light.

“What a plague ails you, Tony?” said he sharply.  “You are as silent as I am impatient for your news.”

Wilding told him in brief, disdainful terms of the reception they had given him at the Castle, and of how they had blamed him for the circumstance that London had failed to proclaim itself for Monmouth.

Trenchard snarled viciously. “’Tis that mongrel Grey,” said he.  “Oh, Anthony, to what an affair have we set our hands?  Naught can prosper with that fellow in it.”  He laid his hand on Wilding’s arm and lowered his voice.  “As I have hinted before, ’twould not surprise me if time proved him a traitor.  Failure attends him everywhere, and so unfailingly that one wonders is not failure invited by him.  And that fool Monmouth!  Pshaw!  See what it is to serve a weakling.  With another in his place and the country disaffected as it is, we had been masters of England by now.”

Two ladies passed them at that moment, cloaked and hooded, walking briskly.  One of them turned to look at Trenchard, who, waving his arms in wild gesticulation, was a conspicuous object.  She checked in her walk, arresting her companion.

“Mr. Wilding!” she exclaimed.  It was Lady Horton.

“Mr. Wilding!” cried Diana, her companion.

Wilding doffed his hat and bowed, Trenchard following his example.

“We had scarce looked to see you in Bridgwater again,” said the mother, her mild, pleasant countenance reflecting the satisfaction it gave her to behold him safe and sound.

“There have been moments,” answered Wilding, “when myself I scarce expected to return.  Your ladyship’s greeting shows me what I had lost had I not done so.”

“You are but newly arrived?” quoth Diana, scanning him in the gloaming.

“From London, an hour since.”

“An hour?” she echoed, and observed that he was still booted and dust-stained.  “You will have been to Lupton House?”

A shadow crossed his face, his glance seemed to grow clouded, all of which watchful Diana did not fail to observe.  “Not yet,” said he.

“You are a laggard,” she laughed at him, and he felt the blood driven back upon his heart.  What did she mean?  Was it possible she suggested that he should be welcome, that his wife’s feelings towards him had undergone a change?  His last parting from her on the road near Walford had been ever in his mind.

“I have had weighty business to transact, he replied, and Trenchard snorted, his mind flying back to the council-room at the Castle, and what his friend had told him.

“But now that you have disposed of that you will sup with us,” said Lady Horton, who was convinced that since Ruth had gone to the altar with him he was Ruth’s lover in spite of the odd things she had heard.  Appearances with Lady Horton counted for everything, and all that glittered was gold to her.

“I would,” he answered, “but that I am to sup at Mr. Newlington’s with His Majesty.  My visit must wait until to-morrow.”

“Let us hope,” said Trenchard, “that it waits no longer.”  He was already instructed touching the night attack on Feversham’s camp on Sedgemoor, and thought it likely Wilding would accompany them.

“You are going to Mr. Newlington’s?” said Diana, and Trenchard thought she had turned singularly pale.  Her hand was over her heart, her eyes wide.  She seemed about to add something, but checked herself.  She took her mother’s arm.  “We are detaining Mr. Wilding, mother,” said she, and her voice quivered as if her whole being were shaken by some gusty agitation.  They spoke their farewells briefly, and moved on.  A second later Diana was back at their side again.

“Where are you lodged, Mr. Wilding?” she inquired.

“With my friend Trenchard ­at the sign of The Ship, by the Cross.”

She briefly acknowledged the information, rejoined her mother, and hurried away with her.

Trenchard stood staring after them a moment.  “Odd!” said he; “did you mark that girl’s discomposure?”

But Wilding’s thoughts were elsewhere.  “Come, Nick!  If I am to render myself fit to sit at table with Monmouth, we’ll need to hasten.”

They went their way, but not so fast as went Diana, urging with her her protesting and short-winded mother.

“Where is your mistress?” the girl asked excitedly of the first servant she met at Lupton House.

“In her room, madam,” the man replied, and to Ruth’s room went Diana breathlessly, leaving Lady Horton gaping after her and understanding nothing.

Ruth, who was seated pensive by her window, rose on Diana’s impetuous entrance, and in the deepening twilight she looked almost ghostly in her gown of shimmering white satin, sewn with pearls about the neck of the low-cut bodice.

“Diana!” she cried.  “You startled me.”

“Not so much as I am yet to do,” answered Diana, breathing excitement.  She threw back the wimple from her head, and pulling away her cloak, tossed it on to the bed.  “Mr. Wilding is in Bridgwater,” she announced.

There was a faint rustle from the stiff satin of Ruth’s gown.  “Then...” her voice shook slightly.  “Then... he is not dead,” she said, more because she felt that she must say something than because her words fitted the occasion.

“Not yet,” said Diana grimly.

“Not yet?”

“He sups to-night at Mr. Newlington’s,” Miss Horton exclaimed in a voice pregnant with meaning.

“Ah!” It was a cry from Ruth, sharp as if she had been stabbed.  She sank back to her seat by the window, smitten down by this sudden news.

There was a pause, which fretted Diana, who now craved knowledge of what might be passing in her cousin’s mind.  She advanced towards Ruth and laid a trembling hand on her shoulder, where the white gown met the ivory neck.  “He must be warned,” she said.

“But.., but how?” stammered Ruth.  “To warn him were to betray Sir Rowland.”

“Sir Rowland?” cried Diana in high scorn.

“And... and Richard,” Ruth continued.

“Yes, and Mr. Newlington, and all the other knaves that are engaged in this murderous business.  Well?” she demanded.  “Will you do it, or must I?”

“Do it?” Ruth’s eyes sought her cousin’s white, excited face in the quasi-darkness.  “But have you thought of what it will mean?  Have you thought of the poor people that will perish unless the Duke is taken and this rebellion brought to an end?”

“Thought of it?” repeated Diana witheringly.  “Not I. I have thought that Mr. Wilding is here and like to have his throat cut before an hour is past.”

“Tell me, are you sure of this?” asked Ruth.

“I have it from your husband’s own lips,” Diana answered, and told her in a few words of her meeting with Mr. Wilding.

Ruth sat with hands folded in her lap, her eyes on the dim violet after-glow in the west, and her mind wrestling with this problem that Diana had brought her.

“Diana,” she cried at last, “what am I to do?”

“Do?” echoed Diana.  “Is it not plain?  Warn Mr. Wilding.”

“But Richard?”

“Mr. Wilding saved Richard’s life...”

“I know.  I know.  My duty is to warn him.”

“Then why hesitate?”

“My duty is also to keep faith with Richard, to think of those poor misguided folk who are to be saved by this,” cried Ruth in an agony.  “If Mr. Wildin is warned, they will all be ruined.”

Diana stamped her foot impatiently.  “Had I thought to find you in this mind, I had warned him myself;” said she.

“Ah!  Why did you not?”

“That the chance of doing so might be yours.  That you might thus repay him the debt in which you stand.”

“Diana, I can’t!” The words broke from her in a sob.

But whatever her interest in Mr. Wilding for her own sake, Diana’s prime intent was the thwarting Sir Rowland Blake.  If Wilding were warned of what manner of feast was spread at Newlington’s, Sir Rowland would be indeed undone.

“You think of Richard,” she exclaimed, “and you know that Richard is to have no active part in the affair ­that he will run no risk.  They have assigned him but a sentry duty that he may warn Blake and his followers if any danger threatens them.”

“It is not of Richard’s life I am thinking, but of his honour, of his trust in me.  To warn Mr. Wilding were... to commit an act of betrayal.”

“And is Mr. Wilding to be slaughtered with his friends?” Diana asked her.  “Resolve me that.  Time presses.  In half an hour it will be too late.”

That allusion to the shortness of the time brought Ruth an inspiration.  Suddenly she saw a way.  Wilding should be saved, and yet she would not break faith with Richard nor ruin those others.  She would detain him, and whilst warning him at the last moment, in time for him to save himself; not do so until it must be too late for him to warn the others.  Thus she would do her duty by him, and yet keep faith with Richard and Sir Rowland.  She had resolved, she thought, the awful difficulty that had confronted her.  She rose suddenly, heartened by the thought.

“Give me your cloak and wimple,” she bade Diana, and Diana flew to do her bidding.  “Where is Mr. Wilding lodged?” she asked.

“At the sign of The Ship ­overlooking the Cross, with Mr. Trenchard.  Shall I come with you?”

“No,” answered Ruth without hesitation.  “I will go alone.”  She drew the wimple well over her head, so that in its shadows her face might lie concealed, and hid her shimmering white dress under Diana’s cloak.

She hastened through the ill-lighted streets, never heeding the rough cobbles that hurt her feet, shod in light indoor wear, never heeding the crowds that thronged her way.  All Bridgwater was astir with Monmouth’s presence; moreover, there had been great incursions from Taunton and the surrounding country, the women-folk of the Duke-King’s followers having come that day to Bridgwater to say farewell to father and son, husband and brother, before the army marched ­as was still believed ­to Gloucester.

The half-hour was striking from Saint Mary’s ­the church in which she had been married ­as Ruth reached the door of the sign of The Ship.  She was about to knock, when suddenly it opened, and Mr. Wilding himself, with Trenchard immediately behind him, stood confronting her.  At sight of him a momentary weakness took her.  He had changed from his hard-used riding-garments into a suit of roughly corded black silk, which threw into relief the steely litheness of his spare figure.  His dark brown hair was carefully dressed, diamonds gleamed in the cravat of snowy lace at his throat.  He was uncovered, his hat under his arm, and he stood aside to make way for her, imagining that she was some woman of the house.

“Mr. Wilding,” said she, her heart fluttering in her throat.  “May I... may I speak with you?”

He leaned forward, seeking to pierce the shadows of her wimple; he had thought he recognized the voice, as his sudden start had shown; and yet he disbelieved his ears.  She moved her head at that moment, and the light streaming out from a lamp in the passage beat upon her white face.

“Ruth!” he cried, and came quickly forward.  Trenchard, behind him, looked on and scowled with sudden impatience.  Mr. Wilding’s philanderings with this lady had never had the old rake’s approval.  Too much trouble already had resulted from them.

“I must speak with you at once.  At once!” she urged him, her tone fearful.

“Are you in need of me?” he asked concernedly.

“In very urgent need,” said she.

“I thank God,” he answered without flippancy.  “You shall find me at your service.  Tell me.”

“Not here; not here,” she answered him.

“Where else?” said he.  “Shall we walk?”

“No, no.”  Her repetitions marked the deep excitement that possessed her.  “I will go in with you.”  And she signed with her head towards the door from which he was barely emerged.

“’Twere scarce fitting,” said he, for being confused and full of speculation on the score of her need, he had for the moment almost overlooked the relations in which they stood.  In spite of the ceremony through which they had gone together, Mr. Wilding still mostly thought of her as of a mistress very difficult to woo.

“Fitting?” she echoed, and then after a pause, “Am I not your wife?” she asked him in a low voice, her cheeks crimsoning.

“Ha!  ’Pon honour, I had almost forgot,” said he, and though the burden of his words seemed mocking, their tone was sad.

Of the passers-by that jostled them a couple had now paused to watch a scene that had an element of the unusual in it.  She pulled her wimple closer to her face, took him by the arm, and drew him with her into the house.

“Close the door,” she bade him, and Trenchard, who had stood aside that they might pass in, forestalled him in obeying her.  “Now lead me to your room, said she, and Wilding in amaze turned to Trenchard as if asking his consent, for the lodging, after all, was Trenchard’s.

“I’ll wait here,” said Nick, and waved his hand towards an oak bench that stood in the passage.  “You had best make haste,” he urged his friend; “you are late already.  That is, unless you are of a mind to set the lady’s affairs before King Monmouth’s.  And were I in your place, Anthony, faith I’d not scruple to do it.  For after all,” he added under his breath, “there’s little choice in rotten apples.”

Ruth waited for some answer from Wilding that might suggest he was indifferent whether he went to Newlington’s or not; but he spoke no word as he turned to lead the way above-stairs to the indifferent parlour which with the adjoining bedroom constituted Mr. Trenchard’s lodging ­and his own, for the time being.

Having assured herself that the curtains were closely drawn, she put by her cloak and hood, and stood revealed to him in the light of the three candles, burning in a branch upon the bare oak table, dazzlingly beautiful in her gown of ivory-white.

He stood apart, cogitating her with glowing eyes, the faintest smile between question and pleasure hovering about his thin mouth.  He had closed the door, and stood in silence waiting for her to make known to him her pleasure.

“Mr. Wilding...” she began, and straightway he interrupted her.

“But a moment since you did remind me that I have the honour to be your husband,” he said with grave humour.  “Why seek now to overcloud that fact?  I mind me that the last time we met you called me by another name.  But it may be,” he added as an afterthought, “you are of opinion that I have broken faith with you.”

“Broken faith?  As how?”

“So!” he said, and sighed.  “My words were of so little account that they have been, I see, forgotten.  Yet, so that I remember them, that is what chiefly matters.  I promised then ­or seemed to promise ­that I would make a widow of you, who had made a wife of you against your will.  It has not happened yet.  Do not despair.  This Monmouth quarrel is not yet fought out.  Hope on, my Ruth.”

She looked at him with eyes wide open ­lustrous eyes of sapphire in a face of ivory.  A faint smile parted her lips, the reflection of the thought in her mind that had she, indeed, been eager for his death she would not be with him at this moment; had she desired it, how easy would her course have been.

“You do me wrong to bid me hope for that,” she answered him, her tones level.  “I do not wish the death of any man, unless...”  She paused; her truthfulness urged her too far.

“Unless?” said he, brows raised, polite interest on his face.

“Unless it be His Grace of Monmouth.”

He considered her with suddenly narrowed eyes.  “You have not by chance sought me to talk politics?” said he.  “Or...” and he suddenly caught his breath, his nostrils dilating with rage at the bare thought that leapt into his mind.  Had Monmouth, the notorious libertine, been to Lupton House and persecuted her with his addresses?  “Is it that you are acquainted with His Grace?” he asked.

“I have never spoken to him!” she answered, with no suspicion of what was in his thoughts.

In his relief he laughed, remembering now that Monmouth’s affairs were too absorbing just at present to leave him room for dalliance.

“But you are standing,” said he, and he advanced a chair.  “I deplore that I have no better hospitality to offer you.  I doubt if I ever shall again.  I am told that Albemarle did me the honour to stable his knackers in my hall at Zoyland.”

She took the chair he offered her, sinking to it like one physically weary, a thing he was quick to notice.  He watched her, his body eager, his soul trammelling it with a steely restraint.  “Tell me, now,” said he, “in what you need me.”

She was silent a moment, pondering, hesitation and confusion seeming to envelop her.  A pink flush rose to colour the beautiful pillar of neck and overspread the delicate half-averted face.  He watched it, wondering.

“How long,” she asked him, her whole intent at present being to delay him and gain time.  “How long have you been in Bridgwater?”

“Two hours at most,” said he.

“Two hours!  And yet you never came to... to me.  I heard of your presence, and I feared you might intend to abstain from seeking me.”

He almost held his breath while she spoke, caught in amazement.  He was standing close beside her chair, his right hand rested upon its tall back.

“Did you so intend?” she asked him.

“I told you even now,” he answered with hard-won calm, “that I had made you a sort of promise.”

“I...  I would not have you keep it,” she murmured.  She heard his sharply indrawn breath, felt him leaning over her, and was filled with an unaccountable fear.

“Was it to tell me this you came?” he asked her, his voice reduced to a whisper.

“No... yes,” she answered, an agony in her mind, which groped for some means to keep him by her side until his danger should be overpast.  That much she owed him in honour if in nothing else.

“No ­yes?” he echoed, and he had drawn himself erect again.  “What is’t you mean, Ruth?”

“I mean that it was that, yet not quite only that.”

“Ah!” Disappointment vibrated faintly in his clamation.  “What else?”

“I would have you abandon Monmouth’s following,” she told him.

He stared a moment, moved away and round where he could confront her.  The flush had now faded from her face.  This he observed and the heave of her bosom in its low bodice.  He knit his brows, perplexed.  Here was surely more than at first might seem.

“Why so?” he asked.

“For your own safety’s sake,” she answered him.

“You are oddly concerned for that, Ruth.”

“Concerned ­not oddly.”  She paused an instant, swallowed hard, and then continued.  “I am concerned too for your honour, and there is no honour in following his banner.  He has crowned himself King, and so proved himself a self-seeker who came dissembled as the champion of a cause that he might delude poor ignorant folk into flocking to his standard and helping him to his ambitious ends.”

“You are wondrously well schooled,” said he.  “Whose teachings do you recite me?  Sir Rowland Blake’s?”

At another time the sneer might have cut her.  At the moment she was too intent upon gaining time.  The means to it mattered little.  The more she talked to no purpose, the more at random was their discourse, the better would her ends be served.

“Sir Rowland Blake?” she cried.  “What is he to me?”

“Ah, what?  Let me set you the question rather.”

“Less than nothing,” she assured him, and for some moments afterwards it was this Sir Rowland who served them as a topic for their odd interview.  On the overmantel the pulse of time beat on from a little wooden clock.  His eyes strayed to it; it marked the three-quarters.  He bethought him suddenly of his engagement.  Trenchard, below-stairs, supremely indifferent whether Wilding went to Newlington’s or not, smoked on, entirely unconcerned by the flight of time.

“Mistress,” said Wilding suddenly, “you have not yet told me in what you seek my service.  Indeed, we seem to have talked to little purpose.  My time is very short.”

“Where are you going?” she asked him, and fearfully she shot a sidelong glance at the timepiece.  It was still too soon, by at least five minutes.

He smiled, but his smile was singular.  He began to suspect at last that her only purpose ­to what end he could not guess ­was to detain him.

“’Tis a singularly sudden interest in my doings, this,” said he quietly.  “What is’t you seek of me?” He reached for the hat he had cast upon the table when they had entered.  “Tell me briefly.  I may stay no longer.”

She rose, her agitation suddenly increasing, afraid that after all he would escape her.  “Where are you going?” she asked.  “Answer me that, and I will tell you why I came.”

“I am to sup at Mr. Newlington’s in His Majesty’s company.

“His Majesty’s?”

“King Monmouth’s,” he explained impatiently.  “Come, Ruth.  Already I am late.”

“If I were to ask you not to go,” she said slowly, and she held out her hands to him, her glance most piteous ­and that was not acting ­as she raised it to meet his own, “would you not stay to pleasure me?”

He considered her from under frowning eyes.  “Ruth,” he said, and he took her hands, “there is here something that I do not understand.  What is’t you mean?”

“Promise me that you will not go to Newlington’s, and I will tell you.”

“But what has Newlington to do with...?  Nay, I am pledged already to go.”

She drew closer to him, her hands upon his shoulders.  “Yet if I ask you ­I, your wife?” she pleaded, and almost won him to her will.

But suddenly he remembered another occasion on which, for purposes of her own, she had so pleaded.  He laughed softly, mockingly.

“Do you woo me, Ruth, who, when I wooed you, would have none of me?”

She drew back from him, crimsoning.  “I think I had better go,” said she.  “You have nothing but mockery for me.  It was ever so.  Who knows?” she sighed as she took up her mantle.  “Had you but observed more gentle ways, you... you...”  She paused, needing to say no more.  “Good-night!” she ended, and made shift to leave.  He watched her, deeply mystified.  She had gained the door when suddenly he moved.

“Wait!” he cried.  She paused, and turned to look over her shoulder, her hand apparently upon the latch.  “You shall not go until you have told me why you besought me to keep away from Newlington’s.  What is it?” he asked, and paused suddenly, a flood of light breaking in upon his mind.  “Is there some treachery afoot?” he asked her, and his eye went wildly to the clock.  A harsh, grating sound rang through the room.  “What are you doing?” he cried.  “Why have you locked the door?” She was tugging and fumbling desperately to extract the key, her hands all clumsy in her nervous haste.  He leapt at her, but in that moment the key came away in her hand.  She wheeled round to face him, erect, defiant almost.

“Here is some devilry!” he cried.  “Give me that key.”

He had no need for further questions.  Here was a proof more eloquent than words to his ready wit.  Sir Rowland or Richard, or both, were in some plot for the Duke’s ruin ­perhaps assassination.  Had not her very words shown that she herself was out of all sympathy with Monmouth?  He was out of sympathy himself.  But not to the extent of standing by to see his throat cut.  She would have the plot succeed ­whatever it might be and yet that he himself be spared.  There his thoughts paused; but only for a moment.  He saw suddenly in this, not a proof of concern born of love but of duty towards him who had imperilled himself once ­and for all time, indeed ­that he might save her brother and Sir Rowland.

He told her what had been so suddenly revealed to him, taxing her with it.  She acknowledged it, her wits battling to find some way by which she might yet gain a few moments more.  She would cling to the key, and though he should offer her violence, she would not let it go without a struggle, and that struggle must consume the little time yet wanting to make it too late for him to save the Duke, and ­what imported more ­thus save herself from betraying her brother’s trust.  Another fear leapt at her suddenly.  If through deed of hers Monmouth was spared that night, Blake, in his despair and rage, might slake his vengeance upon Richard.

“Give me that key,” he demanded, his voice cold and quiet, his face set.

“No, no,” she cried, setting her hand behind her.  “You shall not go, Anthony.  You shall not go.”

“I must,” he insisted, still cold, but oh! so determined.  “My honour’s in it now that I know.”

“You’ll go to your death,” she reminded him.

He sneered.  “What signifies a day or so?  Give me the key.”

“I love you, Anthony!” she cried, livid to the lips.

“Lies!” he answered her contemptuously.  “The key!”

“No,” she answered, and her firmness matched his own.  “I will not have you slain.”

“’Tis not my purpose ­not just yet.  But I must save the others.  God forgive me if I offer violence to a woman,” he added, “and lay rude hands upon her.  Do not compel me to it.”  He advanced upon her, but she, lithe and quick, evaded him, and sprang for the middle of the room.  He wheeled about, his selfcontrol all slipping from him now.  Suddenly she darted to the window, and with the hand that clenched the key she smote a pane with all her might.  There was a smash of shivering glass, followed an instant later by a faint tinkle on the stones below, and the hand that she still held out covered itself all with blood.

“O God!” he cried, the key and all else forgotten.  “You are hurt.”

“But you are saved,” she cried, overwrought, and staggered, laughing and sobbing, to a chair, sinking her bleeding hand to her lap, and smearing recklessly her spotless, shimmering gown.

He caught up a chair by its legs, and at a single blow smashed down the door ­a frail barrier after all.  “Nick!” he roared.  “Nick!” He tossed the chair from him and vanished into the adjoining room to reappear a moment later carrying basin and ewer, and a shirt of Trenchard’s ­the first piece of linen he could find.

She was half fainting, and she let him have his swift, masterful way.  He bathed her hand, and was relieved to find that the injury was none so great as the flow of blood had made him fear.  He tore Trenchard’s fine cambric shirt to shreds ­a matter on which Trenchard afterwards commented in quotations from at least three famous Elizabethan dramatists.  He bound up her hand, just as Nick made his appearance at the splintered door, his mouth open, his pipe, gone out, between his fingers.  He was followed by a startled serving-wench, the only other person in the house, for every one was out of doors that night.

Into the woman’s care Wilding delivered his wife, and without a word to her he left the room, dragging Trenchard with him.  It was striking nine as they went down the stairs, and the sound brought as much satisfaction to Ruth above as dismay to Wilding below.