Gregory Ashburn pushed back his chair and made shift to rise from the table at which he and his brother had but dined.

He was a tall, heavily built man, with a coarse, florid countenance set in a frame of reddish hair that hung straight and limp. In the colour of their hair lay the only point of resemblance between the brothers. For the rest Joseph was spare and of middle weight, pale of face, thin-lipped, and owning a cunning expression that was rendered very evil by virtue of the slight cast in his colourless eyes.

In earlier life Gregory had not been unhandsome; debauchery and sloth had puffed and coarsened him. Joseph, on the other hand, had never been aught but ill-favoured.

“Tis a week since Worcester field was fought,” grumbled Gregory, looking lazily sideways at the mullioned windows as he spoke, “and never a word from the lad.”

Joseph shrugged his narrow shoulders and sneered. It was Joseph's habit to sneer when he spoke, and his words were wont to fit the sneer.

“Doth the lack of news trouble you?” he asked, glancing across the table at his brother.

Gregory rose without meeting that glance.

“Truth to tell it does trouble me,” he muttered.

“And yet,” quoth Joseph, “tis a natural thing enough. When battles are fought it is not uncommon for men to die.”

Gregory crossed slowly to the window, and stared out at the trees of the park which autumn was fast stripping.

“If he were among the fallen—if he were dead then indeed the matter would be at an end.”

“Aye, and well ended.”

“You forget Cynthia,” Gregory reproved him.

“Forget her? Not I, man. Listen.” And he jerked his thumb in the direction of the wainscot.

To the two men in that rich chamber of Castle Marleigh was borne the sound—softened by distance of a girlish voice merrily singing.

Joseph laughed a cackle of contempt.

“Is that the song of a maid whose lover comes not back from the wars?” he asked.

“But bethink you, Joseph, the child suspects not the possibility of his having fallen.”

“Gadswounds, sir, did your daughter give the fellow a thought she must be anxious. A week yesterday since the battle, and no word from him. I dare swear, Gregory, there's little in that to warrant his mistress singing.”

“Cynthia is young—a child. She reasons not as you and I, nor seeks to account for his absence.”

“Troubles not to account for it,” Joseph amended.

“Be that as it may,” returned Gregory irritably, “I would I knew.”

“That which we do not know we may sometimes infer. I infer him to be dead, and there's the end of it.”

“What if he should not be?”

“Then, my good fool, he would be here.”

“It is unlike you, Joseph, to argue so loosely. What if he should be a prisoner?”

“Why, then, the plantations will do that which the battle hath left undone. So that, dead or captive, you see it is all one.”

And, lifting his glass to the light, he closed one eye, the better to survey with the other the rich colour of the wine. Not that Joseph was curious touching that colour, but he was a juggler in gestures, and at that moment he could think of no other whereby he might so naturally convey the utter indifference of his feelings in the matter.

“Joseph, you are wrong,” said Gregory, turning his back upon the window and facing his brother. “It is not all one. What if he return some day?”

“Oh, what if—what if—what if!” cried Joseph testily. “Gregory, what a casuist you might have been had not nature made you a villain! You are as full of “what if s” as an egg of meat. Well what if some day he should return? I fling your question back—what if?”

“God only knows.”

“Then leave it to Him,” was the flippant answer; and Joseph drained his glass.

“Nay, brother, 'twere too great a risk. I must and I will know whether Kenneth were slain or not. If he is a prisoner, then we must exert ourselves to win his freedom.”

“Plague take it,” Joseph burst out. “Why all this ado? Why did you ever loose that graceless whelp from his Scottish moor?”

Gregory sighed with an air of resigned patience.

“I have more reasons than one,” he answered slowly. “If you need that I recite them to you, I pity your wits. Look you, Joseph, you have more influence with Cromwell; more—far more—than have I, and if you are minded to do so, you can serve me in this.”

“I wait but to learn how.”

“Then go to Cromwell, at Windsor or wherever he may be, and seek to learn from him if Kenneth is a prisoner. If he is not, then clearly he is dead.”

Joseph made a gesture of impatience.

“Can you not leave Fate alone?”

“Think you I have no conscience, Joseph?” cried the other with sudden vigour.

“Pish! you are womanish.”

“Nay, Joseph, I am old. I am in the autumn of my days, and I would see these two wed before I die.”

“And are damned for a croaking, maudlin' craven,” added Joseph. “Pah! You make me sick.”

There was a moment's silence, during which the brothers eyed each other, Gregory with a sternness before which Joseph's mocking eye was forced at length to fall.

“Joseph, you shall go to the Lord General.”

“Well,” said Joseph weakly, “we will say that I go. But if Kenneth be a prisoner, what then?”

“You must beg his liberty from Cromwell. He will not refuse you.”

“Will he not? I am none so confident.”

“But you can make the attempt, and leastways we shall have some definite knowledge of what has befallen the boy.”

“The which definite knowledge seems to me none so necessary. Moreover, Gregory, bethink you; there has been a change, and the wind carries an edge that will arouse every devil of rheumatism in my bones. I am not a lad, Gregory, and travelling at this season is no small matter for a man of fifty.”

Gregory approached the table, and leaning his hand upon it:

“Will you go?” he asked, squarely eyeing his brother.

Joseph fell a-pondering. He knew Gregory to be a man of fixed ideas, and he bethought him that were he now to refuse he would be hourly plagued by Gregory's speculations touching the boy's fate and recriminations touching his own selfishness. On the other hand, however, the journey daunted him. He was not a man to sacrifice his creature comforts, and to be asked to sacrifice them to a mere whim, a shadow, added weight to his inclination to refuse the undertaking.

“Since you have the matter so much at heart,” said he at length, “does it not occur to you that you could plead with greater fervour, and be the likelier to succeed?”

“You know that Cromwell will lend a more willing ear to you than to me—perchance because you know so well upon occasion how to weave your stock of texts into your discourse,” he added with a sneer. “Will you go, Joseph?”

“Bethink you that we know not where he is. I may have to wander for weeks o'er the face of England.”

“Will you go?” Gregory repeated.

“Oh, a pox on it,” broke out Joseph, rising suddenly. “I'll go since naught else will quiet you. I'll start to-morrow.”

“Joseph, I am grateful. I shall be more grateful yet if you will start to-day.”

“No, sink me, no.”

“Yes, sink me, yes,” returned Gregory. “You must, Joseph.”

Joseph spoke of the wind again; the sky, he urged, was heavy with rain. “What signifies a day?” he whined.

But Gregory stood his ground until almost out of self-protection the other consented to do his bidding and set out as soon as he could make ready.

This being determined, Joseph left his brother, and cursing Master Stewart for the amount of discomfort which he was about to endure on his behoof, he went to prepare for the journey.

Gregory lingered still in the chamber where they had dined, and sat staring moodily before him at the table-linen. Anon, with a half-laugh of contempt, he filled a glass of muscadine, and drained it. As he set down the glass the door opened, and on the threshold stood a very dainty girl, whose age could not be more than twenty. Gregory looked on the fresh, oval face, with its wealth of brown hair crowning the low, broad forehead, and told himself that in his daughter he had just cause for pride. He looked again, and told himself that his brother was right; she had not the air of a maid whose lover returns not from the wars. Her lips were smiling, and the eyes—low-lidded and blue as the heavens—were bright with mirth.

“Why sit you there so glum,” she cried, “whilst my uncle, they tell me, is going on a journey?”

Gregory was minded to put her feelings to the test.

“Kenneth,” he replied with significant emphasis, watching her closely.

The mirth faded from her eyes, and they took on a grave expression that added to their charm. But Gregory had looked for fear, leastways deep concern, and in this he was disappointed.

“What of him, father?” she asked, approaching.

“Naught, and that's the rub. It is time we had news, and as none comes, your uncle goes to seek it.”

“Think you that ill can have befallen him?”

Gregory was silent a moment, weighing his answer. Then

“We hope not, sweetheart,” said he. “He may be a prisoner. We last had news of him from Worcester, and 'tis a week and more since the battle was fought there. Should he be a captive, your uncle has sufficient influence to obtain his enlargement.”

Cynthia sighed, and moved towards the window.

“Poor Kenneth,” she murmured gently. “He may be wounded.”

“We shall soon learn,” he answered. His disappointment grew keener; where he had looked for grief he found no more than an expression of pitying concern. Nor was his disappointment lessened when, after a spell of thoughtful silence, she began to comment upon the condition of the trees in the park below. Gregory had it in his mind to chide her for this lack of interest in the fate of her intended husband, but he let the impulse pass unheeded. After all, if Kenneth lived she should marry him. Hitherto she had been docile and willing enough to be guided by him; she had even displayed a kindness for Kenneth; no doubt she would do so again when Joseph returned with him—unless he were among the Worcester slain, in which case, perhaps, it would prove best that his fate was not to cause her any prostration of grief.

“The sky is heavy, father,” said Cynthia from the window. “Poor uncle! He will have rough weather for his journey.”

“I rejoice that someone wastes pity on poor uncle,” growled Joseph, who re-entered, “this uncle whom your father drives out of doors in all weathers to look for his daughter's truant lover.”

Cynthia smiled upon him.

“It is heroic of you, uncle.”

“There, there,” he grumbled, “I shall do my best to find the laggard, lest those pretty eyes should weep away their beauty.”

Gregory's glance reproved this sneer of Joseph's, whereupon Joseph drew close to him:

“Broken-hearted, is she not?” he muttered, to which Gregory returned no answer.

An hour later, as Joseph climbed into his saddle, he turned to his brother again, and directing his eyes upon the girl, who stood patting the glossy neck of his nag:

“Come, now,” said he, “you see that matters are as I said.”

“And yet,” replied Gregory sternly, “I hope to see you return with the boy. It will be better so.”

Joseph shrugged his shoulders contemptuously. Then, taking leave of his brother and his niece, he rode out with two grooms at his heels, and took the road South.

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