'Ay, and I ha' been stopped too,' the postboy answered as he dropped his reins.
'No!' in a tone of surprise. 'Was it Black Jack?'
'Not he. 'Twas a woman!'
A murmur of astonishment greeted the answer. The postboy grinned, and sitting easily in his pad prepared to enjoy the situation. 'Ay, a woman!' he said. 'And a rare pair of eyes to that. What do you think she wanted, lads?'
'The stuff, of course.'
'Not she. Wanted one of them I took'--and he jerked his elbow contemptuously in the direction whence he had come--'to fight a duel for her. One of they! Said, was he Mr. Berkeley, and would he risk his life for a woman.'
The head ostler stared. 'Lord! and who was it he was to fight?' he asked at last.
'She did not say. Her spark maybe, that has jilted her.'
'And would they, Jimmie?'
'They? Shoo! They were Methodists,' the postboy answered contemptuously, 'Scratch wigs and snuff-colour. If she had not been next door to a Bess of Bedlam and in a main tantrum, she would have seen that. But "Are you Mr. Berkeley?" she says, all on fire like. And "Will you fight for a woman?" And when they shrieked out, banged the door on them. But I tell you she was a pretty piece as you'd wish to see. If she had asked me, I would not have said no to her.' And he grinned.
The gentleman in the chariot opened a window. 'Where did she stop you, my man?' he asked idly.
'Half a mile this side of Oxford, your worship,' the postboy answered, knuckling his forehead. 'Seemed to me, sir, she was a play actress. She had that sort of way with her.'
The gentleman nodded and closed the window. The night had so far set in that they had brought out lights; as he sat back, one of these, hung in the carriage, shone on his features and betrayed that he was smiling. In this mood his face lost the air of affected refinement--which was then the mode, and went perfectly with a wig and ruffles--and appeared in its true cast, plain and strong, yet not uncomely. His features lacked the insipid regularity which, where all shaved, passed for masculine beauty; the nose ended largely, the cheek-bones were high, and the chin projected. But from the risk and even the edge of ugliness it was saved by a pair of grey eyes, keen, humorous, and kindly, and a smile that showed the eyes at their best. Of late those eyes had been known to express weariness and satiety; the man was tiring of the round of costly follies and aimless amusements in which he passed his life. But at twenty-six pepper is still hot in the mouth, and Sir George Soane continued to drink, game, and fribble, though the first pungent flavour of those delights had vanished, and the things themselves began to pall upon him.
When he had sat thus ten minutes, smiling at intervals, a stir about the door announced that his companions were returning. The landlord preceded them, and was rewarded for his pains with half a guinea; the crowd with a shower of small silver. The postillions cracked their whips, the horses started forward, and amid a shrill hurrah my lord's carriage rolled away from the door.
'Now, who casts?' the peer cried briskly, arranging himself in his seat. 'George, I'll set you. The old stakes?'
'No, I am done for to-night,' Sir George answered yawning without disguise.
'What! crabbed, dear lad?'
'Ay, set Berkeley, my lord. He's a better match for you.'
'And be robbed by the first highwayman we meet? No, no! I told you, if I was to go down to this damp hole of mine--fancy living a hundred miles from White's! I should die if I could not game every day--you were to play with me, and Berkeley was to ensure my purse.'
'He would as soon take it,' Sir George answered languidly, gazing through the glass.
'Sooner, by--!' cried the third traveller, a saturnine, dark-faced man of thirty-four or more, who sat with his back to the horses, and toyed with a pistol that lay on the seat beside him. 'I'm content if your lordship is.'
'Then have at you! Call the main, Colonel. You may be the devil among the highwaymen--that was Selwyn's joke, was it not?--but I'll see the colour of your money.'
'Beware of him. He doved March,' Sir George said indifferently.
'He won't strip me,' cried the young lord. 'Five is the main. Five to four he throws crabs! Will you take, George?'
Soane did not answer, and the two, absorbed in the rattle of the dice and the turns of their beloved hazard, presently forgot him; his lordship being the deepest player in London and as fit a successor to the luckless Lord Mountford as one drop of water to another. Thus left to himself, and as effectually screened from remark as if he sat alone, Sir George devoted himself to an eager scrutiny of the night, looking first through one window and then through the other; in which he persevered though darkness had fallen so completely that only the hedges showed in the lamplight, gliding giddily by in endless walls of white. On a sudden he dropped the glass with an exclamation, and thrust out his head.
'Pull up!' he cried. 'I want to descend.'
The young lord uttered a peevish exclamation. 'What is to do?' he continued, glancing round; then, instantly returning to the dice, 'if it is my purse they want, say Berkeley is here. That will scare them. What are you doing, George?'
'Wait a minute,' was the answer; and in a twinkling Soane was out, and was ordering the servant, who had climbed down, to close the door. This effected, he strode back along the road to a spot where a figure, cloaked, and hooded, was just visible, lurking on the fringe of the lamplight. As he approached it, he raised his hat with an exaggeration of politeness.
'Madam,' he said, 'you asked for me, I believe?'
The woman--for a woman it was, though he could see no more of her than a pale face, staring set and Gorgon-like from under the hood--did not answer at once. Then, 'Who are you?' she said.
'Colonel Berkeley,' he answered with assurance, and again saluted her.
'Who killed the highwayman at Hounslow last Christmas?' she cried.
'The same, madam.'
'And shot Farnham Joe at Roehampton?'
'Yes, madam. And much at your service.'
'We shall see,' she answered, her voice savagely dubious. 'At least you are a gentleman and can use a pistol? But are you willing to risk something for justice' sake?'
'And the sake of your beaux yeux, madam?' he answered, a laugh in his voice. 'Yes.'
'You mean it?'
'Prove me,' he answered.
His tone was light; but the woman, who seemed to labour under strong emotion, either failed to notice this or was content to put up with it. 'Then send on your carriage,' she said.
His jaw fell at that, and had there been light СКАЧАТЬ