On his side Kenneth strove hard during the days that followed to right himself in her eyes. But so headlong was he in the attempt, and so misguided, that presently he overshot his mark by dropping an unflattering word concerning Crispin, whereby he attributed to the Tavern Knight's influence and example the degenerate change that had of late been wrought in him.

Cynthia's eyes grew hard as he spoke, and had he been wise he had better served his cause by talking in another vein. But love and jealousy had so addled what poor brains the Lord had bestowed upon him, that he floundered on, unmindful of any warning that took not the blunt shape of words. At length, however, she stemmed the flow of invective that his lips poured forth.

“Have I not told you already, Kenneth, that it better becomes a gentleman not to slander the man to whom he owes his life? In fact, that a gentleman would scorn such an action?”

As he had protested before, so did he protest now, that what he had uttered was no slander. And in his rage and mortification at the way she used him, and for which he now bitterly upbraided her, he was very near the point of tears, like the blubbering schoolboy that at heart he was.

“And as for the debt, madam,” he cried, striking the oaken table of the hall with his clenched hand, “it is a debt that shall be paid, a debt which this gentleman whom you defend would not permit me to contract until I had promised payment—aye, 'fore George!—and with interest, for in the payment I may risk my very life.”

“I see no interest in that, since you risk nothing more than what you owe him,” she answered, with a disdain that brought the impending tears to his eyes. But if he lacked the manliness to restrain them, he possessed at least the shame to turn his back and hide them from her. “But tell me, sir,” she added, her curiosity awakened, “if I am to judge, what was the nature of this bargain?”

He was silent for a moment, and took a turn in the hall—mastering himself to speak—his hands clasped behind his back, and his eyes bent towards the polished floor which the evening sunlight, filtered through the gules of the leaded windows, splashed here and there with a crimson stain. She sat in the great leathern chair at the head of the board, and, watching him, waited.

He was debating whether he was bound to secrecy in the matter, and in the end he resolved that he was not. Thereupon, pausing before her, he succinctly told the story Crispin had related to him that night in Worcester—the story of a great wrong, that none but a craven could have left unavenged. He added nothing to it, subtracted nothing from it, but told the tale as it had been told to him on that dreadful night, the memory of which had still power to draw a shudder from him.

Cynthia sat with parted lips and eager eyes, drinking in that touching narrative of suffering that was rather as some romancer's fabrication than a true account of what a living man had undergone. Now with sorrow and pity in her heart and countenance, now with anger and loathing, she listened until he had done, and even when he ceased speaking, and flung himself into the nearest chair, she sat on in silence for a spell.

Then of a sudden she turned a pair of flashing eyes upon the boy, and in tones charged with a scorn ineffable:

“You dare,” she cried, “to speak of that man as you do, knowing all this? Knowing what he has suffered, you dare to rail in his absence against those sins to which his misfortunes have driven him? How, think you, would it have fared with you, you fool, had you stood in the shoes of this unfortunate? Had you fallen on your craven knees, and thanked the Lord for allowing you to keep your miserable life? Had you succumbed to the blows of fate with a whine of texts upon your lips? Who are you?” she went on, rising, breathless in her wrath, which caused him to recoil in sheer affright before her. “Who are you, and what are you, that knowing what you know of this man's life, you dare to sit in judgment upon his actions and condemn them? Answer me, you fool!”

But never a word had he wherewith to meet that hail of angry, contemptuous questions. The answer that had been so ready to his lips that night at Worcester, when, in a milder form the Tavern Knight had set him the same question, he dared not proffer now. The retort that Sir Crispin had not cause enough in the evil of others, which had wrecked his life, to risk the eternal damnation of his soul, he dared no longer utter. Glibly enough had he said to that stern man that which he dared not say now to this sterner beauty. Perhaps it was fear of her that made him dumb, perhaps that at last he knew himself for what he was by contrast with the man whose vices he had so heartily despised a while ago.

Shrinking back before her anger, he racked his shallow mind in vain for a fitting answer. But ere he had found one, a heavy step sounded in the gallery that overlooked the hall, and a moment later Gregory Ashburn descended. His face was ghastly white, and a heavy frown furrowed the space betwixt his brows.

In the fleeting glance she bestowed upon her father, she remarked not the disorder of his countenance; whilst as for Kenneth, he had enough to hold his attention for the time.

Gregory's advent set an awkward constraint upon them, nor had he any word to say as he came heavily up the hall.

At the lower end of the long table he paused, and resting his hand upon the board, he seemed on the point of speaking when of a sudden a sound reached him that caused him to draw a sharp breath; it was the rumble of wheels and the crack of a whip.

“It is Joseph!” he cried, in a voice the relief of which was so marked that Cynthia noticed it. And with that exclamation he flung past them, and out through the doorway to meet his brother so opportunely returned.

He reached the terrace steps as the coach pulled up, and the lean figure of Joseph Ashburn emerged from it.

“So, Gregory,” he grumbled for greeting, “it was on a fool's errand you sent me, after all. That knave, your messenger, found me in London at last when I had outworn my welcome at Whitehall. But, 'swounds, man,” he cried, remarking the pallor, of his brother's face, “what ails thee?”

“I have news for you, Joseph,” answered Gregory, in a voice that shook.

“It is not Cynthia?” he inquired. “Nay, for there she stands-and her pretty lover by her side. 'Slife, what a coxcomb the lad's grown.”

And with that he hastened forward to kiss his niece, and congratulate Kenneth upon being restored to her.

“I heard of it, lad, in London,” quoth he, a leer upon his sallow face—“the story of how a fire-eater named Galliard befriended you, trussed a parson and a trooper, and dragged you out of jail a short hour before hanging-time.”

Kenneth flushed. He felt the sneer in Joseph's, words like a stab. The man's tone implied that another had done for him that which he would not have dared do for himself, and Kenneth felt that this was so said in Cynthia's presence with malicious, purpose.

He was right. Partly it was Joseph's way to be spiteful and venomous whenever chance afforded him the opportunity. Partly he had been particularly soured at present by his recent discomforts, suffered in a cause wherewith he had no, sympathy—that of the union Gregory desired 'twixt Cynthia and Kenneth.

There was an evil smile on his thin lips, and his crooked eyes rested tormentingly upon the young man. A fresh taunt trembled on his viperish tongue, when Gregory plucked at the skirts of his coat, and drew him aside. They entered the chamber where they had held their last interview before Joseph had set out for news of Kenneth. With an air of mystery Gregory closed the door, then turned to face his brother. He stayed him in the act of unbuckling his sword-belt.

“Wait, Joseph!” he cried dramatically. “This is no time to disarm. Keep your sword on your thigh, man; you will need it as you never yet have needed it.” He paused, took a deep breath, and hurled the news at his brother. “Roland Marleigh is here.” And he sat down like a man exhausted.

Joseph did not start; he did not cry out; he did not so much as change countenance. A slight quiver of the eyelids was the only outward sign he gave of the shock that his brother's announcement had occasioned. The hand that had rested on the buckle of his sword-belt slipped quietly to his side, and he deliberately stepped up to Gregory, his eyes set searchingly upon the pale, flabby face before him. A sudden suspicion darting through his mind, he took his brother by the shoulders and shook him vigorously.

“Gregory, you fool, you have drunk overdeep in my absence.”

“I have, I have,” wailed Gregory, “and, my God, 'twas he was my table-fellow, and set me the example.”

“Like enough, like enough,” returned Joseph, with a contemptuous laugh. “My poor Gregory, the wine has so fouled your worthless wits at last, that they conjure up phantoms to sit at the table with you. Come, man, what petticoat business is this? Bestir yourself, fool.”

At that Gregory caught the drift of Joseph's suspicions.

“Tis you are the fool,” he retorted angrily, springing to his feet, and towering above his brother.

“It was no ghost sat with me, but Roland Marleigh, himself, in the flesh, and strangely changed by time. So changed that I knew him not, nor should I know him now but for that which, not ten minutes ago, I overheard.”

His earnestness was too impressive, his sanity too obvious, and Joseph's suspicions were all scattered before it.

He caught Gregory's wrist in a grip that made him wince, and forced him back into his seat.

“Gadslife, man, what is it you mean?” he demanded through set teeth. “Tell me.”

And forthwith Gregory told him of the manner of Kenneth's coming to Sheringham and to Castle Marleigh, accompanied by one Crispin Galliard, the same that had been known for his mad exploits in the late wars as “rakehelly Galliard,” and that was now known to the malignants as “The Tavern Knight” for his debauched habits. Crispin's mention of Roland Marleigh on the night of his arrival now returned vividly to Gregory's mind, and he repeated it, ending with the story that that very evening he had overheard Kenneth telling Cynthia.

“And this Galliard, then, is none other than that pup of insolence, Roland Marleigh, grown into a dog of war?” quoth Joseph.

He was calm—singularly calm for one who had heard such news.

“There remains no doubt of it.”

“And you saw this man day by day, sat with him night by night over your damned sack, and knew him not? Oddswounds, man, where were your eyes?”

“I may have been blind. But he is greatly changed. I would defy you, Joseph, to have recognized him.”

Joseph sneered, and the flash of his eyes told of the contempt wherein he held his brother's judgment and opinions.

“Think not that, Gregory. I have cause enough to remember him,” said Joseph, with an unpleasant laugh. Then as suddenly changing his tone for one of eager anxiety:

“But the lad, Gregory, does he suspect, think you?”

“Not a whit. In that lies this fellow's diabolical cunning. Learning of Kenneth's relations with us, he seized the opportunity Fate offered him that night at Worcester, and bound the lad on oath to help him when he should demand it, without disclosing the names of those against whom he should require his services. The boy expects at any moment to be bidden to go forth with him upon his mission of revenge, little dreaming that it is here that that tragedy is to be played out.”

“This comes of your fine matrimonial projects for Cynthia,” muttered Joseph acridly. He laughed his unpleasant laugh again, and for a spell there was silence.

“To think, Gregory,” he broke out at last, “that for a fortnight he should have been beneath this roof, and you should have found no means of doing more effectively that which was done too carelessly eighteen years ago.”

He spoke as coldly as though the matter were a trivial one. Gregory shuddered and looked at his brother in alarm.

“What now, fool?” cried Joseph, scowling. “Are you as cowardly as you are blind? Damn me, sir, it seems well that I am returned. I'll have no Marleigh plague my old age for me.” He paused a moment, then continued in a quieter voice, but one whose ring was sinister beyond words: “Tomorrow I shall find a way to draw this your dog of war to some secluded ground. I have some skill,” he pursued, tapping his hilt as he spoke, “besides, you shall be there, Gregory.” And he smiled darkly. “Is there no other way?” asked Gregory, in distress.

“There was,” answered Joseph. “There was in Parliament. At Whitehall I met a man—one Colonel Pride—a bloodthirsty old Puritan soldier, who would give his right hand to see this Galliard hanged. Galliard, it seems, slew the fellow's son at Worcester. Had I but known,” he added regretfully—“had your wits been keener, and you had discovered it and sent me word, I had found means to help Colonel Pride to his revenge. As it is”—he shrugged his shoulders—“there is not time.”

“It may be—” began Gregory, then stopped abruptly with an exclamation that caused Joseph to wheel sharply round. The door had opened, and on the threshold Sir Crispin Galliard stood, deferentially, hat in hand.

Joseph's astonished glance played rapidly over him for a second. Then:

“Who the devil may you be?” he blurted out.

Despite his anxiety, Gregory chuckled at the question. The Tavern Knight came forward. “I am Sir Crispin Galliard, at your service,” said he, bowing. “I was told that the master of Marleigh was returned, and that I should find you here, and I hasten, sir, to proffer you my thanks for the generous shelter this house has given me this fortnight past.”

Whilst he spoke he measured Joseph with his eyes, and his glance was as hateful as his words were civil. Joseph was lost in amazement. Little trace was there in this fellow of the Roland Marleigh he had known. Moreover, he had looked to find an older man, forgetting that Roland's age could not exceed thirty-eight. Then, again, the fading light, whilst revealing the straight, supple lines of his lank figure, softened the haggardness of the face and made him appear yet younger than the light of day would have shown him.

In an instant Joseph had recovered from his surprise, and for all that his mind misgave him tortured by a desire to learn whether Crispin was aware of their knowledge concerning him—his smile was serene, and his tones level and pleasant, as he made answer:

“Sir, you are very welcome. You have valiantly served one dear to us, and the entertainment of our poor house for as long as you may deign to honour it is but the paltriest of returns.”

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