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

It was striking nine.  Therefore, Ruth thought that she had achieved her object, Wilding imagined that all was lost.  It needed the more tranquil mind of Nicholas Trenchard to show him the fly in madam’s ointment, after Wilding, in half a dozen words, had made him acquainted with the situation.

“What are you going to do?” asked Trenchard.

“Run to Newlington’s and warn the Duke ­if still in time.”

“And thereby precipitate the catastrophe?  Oh, give it thought.  It is all it needs.  You are taking it for granted that nine o’clock is the hour appointed for King Monmouth’s butchery.”

“What else?” asked Wilding, impatient to be off.

They were standing in the street under the sign of The Ship, by which Jonathan Edney Mr. Trenchard’s landlord ­distinguished his premises and the chandler’s trade he drove there.  Trenchard set a detaining hand on Mr. Wilding’s arm.

“Nine o’clock is the hour appointed for supper.  It is odds the Duke will be a little late, and it is more than odds that when he does arrive, the assassins will wait until the company is safely at table and lulled by good eating and drinking.  You had overlooked that, I see.  It asks an old head for wisdom, after all.  Look you, Anthony.  Speed to Colonel Wade as fast as your legs can carry you, and get a score of men.  Then find some fellow to lead you to Newlington’s orchard, and if only you do not arrive too late you may take Sir Rowland and his cut-throats in the rear and destroy them to a man before they realize themselves attacked.  I’ll reconnoitre while you go, and keep an eye on the front of the house.  Away with you!”

Ordinarily Wilding was a man of a certain dignity, but you had not thought it had you seen him running in silk stockings and silver-buckled shoes at a headlong pace through the narrow streets of Bridgwater, in the direction of the Castle.  He overset more than one, and oaths followed him from these and from others whom he rudely jostled out of his path.  Wade was gone with Monmouth, but he came upon Captain Slape, who had a company of scythes and musketeers incorporated in the Duke’s own regiment, and to him Wilding gasped out the news and his request for a score of men with what breath was left him.

Time was lost ­and never was time more precious ­in convincing Slape that this was no old wife’s tale.  At last, however, he won his way and twenty musketeers; but the quarter-past the hour had chimed ere they left the Castle.  He led them forth at a sharp run, with never a thought for the circumstance that they would need their breath anon, perhaps for fighting, and he bade the man who guided them take them by back streets that they might attract as little attention as possible.

Within a stone’s-throw of the house he halted them, and sent one forward to reconnoitre, following himself with the others as quietly and noiselessly as possible.  Mr. Newlington’s house was all alight, but from the absence of uproar ­sounds there were in plenty from the main street, where a dense throng had collected to see His Majesty go in ­Mr. Wilding inferred with supreme relief that they were still in time.  But the danger was not yet past.  Already, perhaps, the assassins were penetrating ­or had penetrated ­to the house; and at any moment such sounds might greet them as would announce the execution of their murderous design.

Meanwhile Mr. Trenchard, having relighted his pipe, and set his hat rakishly atop his golden wig, strolled up the High Street, swinging his long cane very much like a gentleman taking the air in quest of an appetite for supper.  He strolled past the Cross and on until he came to the handsome mansion ­one of the few handsome houses in Bridgwater ­where opulent Mr. Newlington had his residence.  A small crowd had congregated about the doors, for word had gone forth that His Majesty was to sup there.  Trenchard moved slowly through the people, seemingly uninterested, but, in fact, scanning closely every face he encountered.  Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he espied in the indifferent light Mr. Richard Westmacott.

Trenchard passed him, jostling him as he went, and strolled on some few paces, then turned, and came slowly back, and observed that Richard had also turned and was now watching him as he approached.  He was all but upon the boy when suddenly his wrinkled face lighted with recognition.

“Mr. Westmacott!” he cried, and there was surprise in his voice.

Richard, conscious that Trenchard must no doubt regard him as a turn-tippet, flushed, and stood aside to give passage to the other.  But Mr. Trenchard was by no means minded to pass.  He clapped a hand on Richard’s shoulder.  “Nay,” he cried, between laughter and feigned resentment.  “Do you bear me ill-will, lad?”

Richard was somewhat taken aback.  “For what should I bear you ill-will, Mr. Trenchard?” quoth he.

Trenchard laughed frankly, and so uproariously that his hat over-jauntily cocked was all but shaken from his head.  “I mind me the last time we met, I played you an unfair trick,” said he.  His tone bespoke the very highest good-humour.  He slipped his arm through Richard’s.  “Never bear an old man malice, lad,” said he.

“I assure you that I bear you none,” said Richard, relieved to find that Trenchard apparently knew nothing of his defection, yet wishing that Trenchard would go his ways, for Richard’s task was to stand sentry there.

“I’ll not believe you till you afford me proof,” Trenchard replied.  “You shall come and wash your resentment down in the best bottle of Canary the White Cow can furnish us.”

“Not now, I thank you,” answered Richard.

“You are thinking of the last occasion on which I drank with you,” said Trenchard reproachfully.

“Not so.  But... but I am not thirsty.”

“Not thirsty?” echoed Trenchard.  “And is that a reason?  Why, lad, it is the beast that drinks only when he thirsts.  And in that lies one of the main differences between beast and man.  Come on” ­and his arm effected a gentle pressure upon Richard’s, to move him thence.  But at that moment, down the street with a great rumble of wheels, cracking of whips and clatter of hoofs, came a coach, bearing to Mr. Newlington’s King Monmouth escorted by his forty life-guards.  Cheering broke from the crowd as the carriage drew up, and the Duke-King as he alighted turned his handsome face, on which shone the ruddy glow of torches, to acknowledge these loyal acclamations.  He passed up the steps, at the top of which Mr. Newlington ­fat and pale and monstrously overdressed ­stood bowing to welcome his royal visitor.  Host and guest vanished, followed by some six officers of Monmouth’s, among whom were Grey and Wade.  The sight-seers flattened themselves against the walls as the great lumbering coach put about and went off again the way it had come, the life-guards following after.

Trenchard fancied that he caught a sigh of relief from Richard, but the street was noisy at the time and he may well have been mistaken.

“Come,” said he, renewing his invitation, “we shall both be the better for a little milk of the White Cow.”

Richard wavered almost by instinct.  The White Cow, he knew, was famous for its sack; on the other hand, he was pledged to Sir Rowland to stand guard in the narrow lane at the back where ran the wall of Mr. Newlington’s garden.  Under the gentle suasion of Trenchard’s arm, he moved a few steps up the street; then halted, his duty battling with his inclination.

“No, no,” he muttered.  “If you will excuse me...”

“Not I,” said Trenchard, drawing from his hesitation a shrewd inference as to Richard’s business.

“To drink alone is an abomination I’ll not be guilty of.”

“But...” began the irresolute Richard.

“Shalt urge me no excuses, or we’ll quarrel.  Come,” and he moved on, dragging Richard with him.

A few steps Richard took unwillingly under the other’s soft compulsion; then, having given the matter thought ­he was always one to take the line of least resistance ­he assured himself that his sentryship was entirely superfluous; the matter of Blake’s affair was an entire secret, shared only by those who had a hand in it.  Blake was quite safe from all surprises; Trenchard was insistent and it was difficult to deny him; and the sack at the White Cow was no doubt the best in Somerset.  He gave himself up to the inevitable and fell into step alongside his companion who babbled aimlessly of trivial matters.  Trenchard felt the change from unwilling to willing companionship, and approved it.

They mounted the three steps and entered the common room of the inn.  It was well thronged at the time, but they found places at the end of a long table, and there they sat and discussed the landlady’s Canary for the best part of a half-hour, until a sudden spatter of musketry, near at hand, came to startle the whole room.

There was a momentary stillness in the tavern, succeeded by an excited clamouring, a dash for the windows and a storm of questions, to which none could return any answer.  Richard had risen with a sudden exclamation, very pale and scared of aspect.  Trenchard tugged at his sleeve.

“Sit down,” said he.  “Sit down.  It will be nothing.”

“Nothing?” echoed Richard, and his eyes were suddenly bent on Trenchard in a look in which suspicion was now blent with terror.

A second volley of musketry crackled forth at that moment, and the next the whole street was in an uproar.  Men were running and shots resounded on every side, above all of which predominated the cry that His Majesty was murdered.

In an instant the common room of the White Cow was emptied of every occupant save two ­Trenchard and Westmacott.  Neither of them felt the need to go forth in quest of news.  They knew how idle was the cry in the streets.  They knew what had taken place, and knowing it, Trenchard smoked on placidly, satisfied that Wilding had been in time, whilst Richard stood stricken and petrified by dismay at realizing, with even greater certainty, that something had supervened to thwart, perhaps to destroy, Sir Rowland.  For he knew that Blake’s party had gone forth armed with pistols only, and intent not to use even these save in the last extremity; to avoid noise they were to keep to steel.  This knowledge gave Richard positive assurance that the volleys they had heard must have been fired by some party that had fallen upon Blake’s men and taken them by surprise.

And it was his fault!  He was the traitor to whom perhaps a score of men owed their deaths at that moment!  He had failed to keep watch as he had undertaken.  His fault it was ­No! not his, but this villain’s who sat there smugly taking his ease and pulling at his pipe.

At a blow Richard dashed the thing from his companion’s mouth and fingers.

Trenchard looked up startled.

“What the devil...?” he began.

“It is your fault, your fault!” cried Richard, his eyes blazing, his lips livid.  “It was you who lured me hither.”

Trenchard stared at him in bland surprise.  “Now, what a plague is’t you’re saying?” he asked, and brought Richard to his senses by awaking in him the instinct of self-preservation.

How could he explain his meaning without betraying himself? ­and surely that were a folly, now that the others were no doubt disposed of.  Let him, rather, bethink him of his own safety.  Trenchard looked at him keenly, with well-assumed intent to read what might be passing in his mind, then rose, paid for the wine, and expressed his intention of going forth to inquire into these strange matters that were happening in Bridgwater.

Meanwhile, those volleys fired in Mr. Newlington’s orchard had caused ­as well may be conceived ­an agitated interruption of the superb feast Mr. Newlington had spread for his noble and distinguished guests.  The Duke had for some days been going in fear of his life, for already he had been fired at more than once by men anxious to earn the price at which his head was valued; instantly he surmised that whatever that firing might mean, it indicated some attempt to surprise him with the few gentlemen who attended him.

The whole company came instantly to its feet, and Colonel Wade stepped to a window that stood open ­for the night was very warm.  The Duke turned for explanation to his host; the trader, however, professed himself entirely unable to offer any.  He was very pale and his limbs were visibly trembling, but then his agitation was most natural.  His wife and daughter supervened at that moment, in their alarm entering the room unceremoniously, in spite of the august presence, to inquire into the meaning of this firing, and to reassure themselves that their father and his illustrious guests were safe.

From the windows they could observe a stir in the gardens below.  Black shadows of men flitted to and fro, and a loud, rich voice was heard calling to them to take cover, that they were betrayed.  Then a sheet of livid flame blazed along the summit of the low wall, and a second volley of musketry rang out, succeeded by cries and screams from the assailed and the shouts of the assailers who were now pouring into the garden through the battered doorway and over the wall.  For some moments steel rang on steel, and pistol-shots cracked here and there to the accompaniment of voices, raised some in anger, some in pain.  But it was soon over, and a comparative stillness succeeded.

A voice called up from the darkness under the windows to know if His Majesty was safe.  There had been a plot to take him; but the ambuscaders had been ambuscaded in their turn, and not a man of them remained ­which was hardly exact, for under a laurel bush, scarce daring to breathe, lay Sir Rowland Blake, livid with fear and fury, and bleeding from a rapier scratch in the cheek, but otherwise unhurt.

In the room above, Monmouth had sunk wearily into his chair upon hearing of the design there had been against his life.  A deep, bitter melancholy enwrapped his spirit.  Lord Grey’s first thoughts flew to the man he most disliked ­the one man missing from those who had been bidden to accompany His Majesty, whose absence had already formed the subject of comment.  Grey remembered this bearing before the council that same evening, and his undisguised resentment of the reproaches levelled against him.

“Where is Mr. Wilding?” he asked suddenly, his voice dominating the din of talk that filled the room.  “Do we hold the explanation of his absence?”

Monmouth looked up quickly, his beautiful eyes ineffably sad, his weak mouth drooping at the corners.  Wade turned to confront Grey.

“Your lordship does not suggest that Mr. Wilding can have a hand in this?”

“Appearances would seem to point in that direction,” answered Grey, and in his wicked heart he almost hoped it might be so.

“Then appearances speak truth for once,” came a bitter, ringing voice.  They turned, and there on the threshold stood Mr. Wilding.  Unheard he had come upon them.  He was bareheaded and carried his drawn sword.  There was blood upon it, and there was blood on the lace that half concealed the hand that held it; otherwise ­and saving that his shoes and stockings were sodden with the dew from the long grass in the orchard ­he was as spotless as when he had left Ruth in Trenchard’s lodging; his face, too, was calm, save for the mocking smile with which he eyed Lord Grey.

Monmouth rose on his appearance, and put his hand to his sword in alarm.  Grey whipped his own from the scabbard, and placed himself slightly in front of his master as if to preserve him.

“You mistake, sirs,” said Wilding quietly.  “The hand I have had in this affair has been to save Your Majesty from your enemies.  At the moment I should have joined you, word was brought me of the plot that was laid, of the trap that was set for you.  I hastened to the Castle and obtained a score of musketeers of Slape’s company.  With those I surprised the murderers lurking in the garden there, and made an end of them.  I greatly feared I should not come in time; but it is plain that Heaven preserves Your Majesty for better days.”

In the revulsion of feeling, Monmouth’s eyes shone moist.  Grey sheathed his sword with an awkward laugh, and a still more awkward word of apology to Wilding.  The Duke, moved by a sudden impulse to make amends for his unworthy suspicions, for his perhaps unworthy reception of Wilding earlier that evening in the council-room, drew the sword on which his hand still rested.  He advanced a step.

“Kneel, Mr. Wilding,” he said in a voice stirred by emotion.  But Wilding’s stern spirit scorned this all too sudden friendliness of Monmouth’s as much as he scorned the accolade at Monmouth’s hands.

“There are more pressing matters to demand Your Majesty’s attention,” said Mr. Wilding coldly, advancing to the table as he spoke, and taking up a napkin to wipe his blade, “than the reward of an unworthy servant.”

Monmouth felt his sudden enthusiasm chilled by that tone and manner.

“Mr. Newlington,” said Mr. Wilding, after the briefest of pauses, and the fat, sinful merchant started forward in alarm.  It was like a summons of doom.  “His Majesty came hither, I am informed, to receive at your hands a sum of money ­twenty thousand pounds ­towards the expenses of the campaign.  Have you the money at hand?” And his eye, glittering between cruelty and mockery, fixed itself upon the merchant’s ashen face.

“It... it shall be forthcoming by morning,” stammered Newlington.

“By morning?” cried Grey, who, with the others, watched Mr. Newlington what time they all wondered at Mr. Wilding’s question and the manner of it.

“You knew that I march to-night,” Monmouth reproached the merchant.

“And it was to receive the money that you invited His Majesty to do you the honours of supping with you here,” put in Wade, frowning darkly.

The merchant’s wife and daughter stood beside him watching him, and plainly uneasy.  Before he could make any reply, Mr. Wilding spoke again.

“The circumstance that he has not the money by him is a little odd ­or would be were it not for what has happened.  I would submit, Your Majesty, that you receive from Mr. Newlington not twenty thousand pounds as he had promised you, but thirty thousand, and that you receive it not as a loan as was proposed, but as a fine imposed upon him in consequence of... his lack of care in the matter of his orchard.”

Monmouth looked at the merchant very sternly.  “You have heard Mr. Wilding’s suggestion,” said he.  “You may thank the god of traitors it was made, else we might have thought of a harsher course.  You shall pay the money by ten o’clock to-morrow to Mr. Wilding, whom I shall leave behind for the sole purpose of collecting it.”  He turned from Newlington in plain disgust.  “I think, sirs, that here is no more to be done.  Are the streets safe, Mr. Wilding?”

“Not only safe, Your Majesty, but the twenty men of Slape’s and your own life-guards are waiting to escort you.

“Then in God’s name let us be going,” said Monmouth, sheathing his sword and moving towards the door.  Not a second time did he offer to confer the honour of knighthood upon his saviour.

Mr. Wilding turned and went out to marshal his men.  The Duke and his officers followed more leisurely.  As they reached the door, a woman’s cry broke the silence behind them.  Monmouth turned.  Mr. Newlington, purple of face and his eyes protruding horridly, was beating the air with his hands.  Suddenly he collapsed, and crashed forward with arms flung out amid the glass and silver of the table all spread with the traitor’s banquet to which he had bidden his unsuspecting victim.

His wife and daughter ran to him and called him by name, Monmouth pausing a moment to watch them from the doorway with eyes unmoved.  But Mr. Newlington answered, not their call, for he was dead.