quire Darracott's daughter Kitty sat sewing in the parlour one bright June afternoon in the year of grace 1794. The sweet perfume of roses crept in through the open casement, the birds sang, and the butterflies fluttered athwart the trimly-kept garden. Within and without all was quiet and content. The window by which she was sitting overlooked a fine stretch of country. If she had been so minded, Mistress Kitty could have seen the village of Elmsfield, and beyond that the roof and chimneys of Lady Catherine Ardingby's house, Temple Grange.
But her eyes were fixed on her embroidery, and the needle flew swiftly backwards and forwards in her fingers. She worked on mechanically, while her thoughts were far, far away.
A year ago, Kitty Darracott, the only child of loving parents, had been as free from care as any maiden in the land; but of late shadows had been creeping up on every side. This afternoon she had betaken herself to the seclusion of the south parlour, and she was trying to face the difficulties that beset her path, to think them over before she was called to assist her mother in the gathering of lavender and rose-leaves wherewith to fill the china bowls that stood in every nook and corner of the house.
Kitty had been brought up in a strict school; she would not have dared to keep her mother waiting, no, not five minutes after her appointed hour. Madam Darracott, a gentle, delicate woman, of no great force of character, was treated with the greatest reverence by the squire, and he had taught his daughter to be of the same mind. Whatever went wrong on the estate, or in the daily life at High Row, the mistress was not to be troubled with complaints.
The clock in the hall outside struck three. Kitty dropped her needle, pushed back her rippling locks, that would dance on her forehead from beneath the frills of her white muslin cap, and took a letter from the folds of her broad sash.
The letter was heavily sealed, and the contents were hastily written; nevertheless, Kitty could decipher every one of those ill-formed characters. "My dear and beloved child" - so ran the latter -"We are truly fallen on evil times. I pray God to keep your mother and you, my daughter, in good health. I long for news of you; also to hear how the haymaking is prospering. This being the case, and as my friends urge me to withdraw to the country, and patiently await better days, I propose to join you shortly. I do not mention day or hour in order that you may not be disappointed should I be detained in town. Mr Pitt continues to have a large majority, and the war, once commenced, will surely drag England into the slough of despair..." There were a few directions concerning the garden, a message to the bailiff, and then the pith of the letter: "Look in my cabinet drawer - there are important papers. Conceal or destroy them, as is most convenient. No word to madam of this matter."
No word indeed! Kitty understood the warning only too well. Her father had long been an ardent partisan of the Whig faction, and was bitterly opposed to the principles of Mr Pitt, the great minister of England. It was not in the squire's nature to be half-hearted in his undertakings, and his opinion, bruited abroad on every opportunity, caused him to be regarded, in the eyes of his county associates, as a desperate Jacobin. True it was that he, as well as many another liberal Englishman, had been stricken with horror at the tidings of the execution of King Louis of France; but much as he disapproved that wicked deed, he refused to give up his cherished dream of reform, and to throw in his lot with the Tories. Restless and discontented, he was constantly journeying backwards and forwards between London and Elmsfield, doing little good to his friends, and thereby making himself a marked man in the eyes of county authorities. These were strange times, truly!
France had declared war against England; King George III had issued a proclamation warning his subjects against secret societies; revolution was said to be rife in the land; the Government was taking the most stringent methods to maintain order, even at the cost of justice; in very truth it may be said that panic reigned.
No wonder that Kitty sighed as she read her father's letter. How she longed for his coming! - and yet hoped that his arrival might not lead to disputes with the neighbouring gentry. One point, however, was clear to her - she must obey his commands concerning his papers. The room in which the cabinet stood was close by; if she made haste there was still time before she joined her mother, and the matter would be off her conscience. She was light of foot, and having once taken her resolution, quick to act. In another moment she had opened the drawer and found the papers - printed matter mostly - and a score of letters. Having collected them hastily, she hesitated, uncertain how best to dispose of them. That the contents of the drawer were valuable in her father's estimation was perfectly clear, otherwise he had not put them so carefully together; and yet he wished them to be destroyed. Would it be better to look them through first? No; she had no authority to do so. Kitty was upright and honourable; she would not gratify her curiosity at the expense of her conscience. Without more ado she ran into the kitchen, where a huge fire was blazing on the hearth. There was no one in the kitchen for the moment. Kitty put the packet into the midst of the fire, and watched it blaze and then dwindle into a glowing mass, which finally dropped to ashes. She took a big faggot and placed it on the fire to make assurance doubly sure. A few printed leaves fell on to the hearth; these she hurriedly concealed in her pocket, to be burnt at a future period.
Then she turned her face, glowing from the flames, and went her way. She was punctual to a moment. For all her haste, she did not forget to drop a curtsey at the door before she went forward to receive her mother's embrace.
Madam Darracott had a gentle expression of countenance, and soft, grey eyes; she was dressed with great care in a figured silk gown, and her hair was powdered, and worn over a cushion.
"You are heated, my Kitty; is the day so warm?"
"No, mother, there is a pleasant breeze," answered truthful Kitty; "but I had directions from my father to burn some printed papers, and the fire has caught my face."
"Truly it has," answered Mrs Darracott, who had been a beauty at the Court of Queen Charlotte in her day. "Come to my room, child, and I will give you a cooling cosmetic. I do not like to see you flushed."
"I am sorry, madam," said Kitty - she had dreaded being questioned as to the contents of the cabinet. "I will endeavour to act according to your wishes for the future."
Mrs Darracott gazed with pride on her daughter; perhaps after all a little extra colour was not unbecoming to the complexion, and Kitty certainly looked her best to-day in her soft white gown. "You are a good child," she said; "and now give me your arm, and I will go into the garden and take the air."
Kitty's arm proved a very firm support; by the aid of it madam was enabled to walk as far as the summer-house; here she rested and looked on while Kitty ran about in the sunshine, collecting the falling rose-leaves and cutting the lavender. "And now, dear mother," she said, after a while, "I will pluck a posy of yellow roses for my godmother. They are just in their glory, and there are none like them at the Grange."
"Indeed there are not; our roses are the best in the county. Pick the finest, child, and Matthew shall carry them to the Grange before they fade."
Kitty was silent; it was very dull to send a nosegay by the servant. She had looked forward to taking it herself, to being thanked by her godmother, and, moreover, to hearing the last news of the county-side; for Lady Catherine Ardingby was not above retailing a little pleasant gossip. There was to be an assembly at the bishop's that day, and Kitty did wish to know how it went off. However, she could give up her own will very contentedly, and she never contradicted her mother, so she picked the yellow roses, and would have put them away until Matthew had finished his work in the garden, but that just then she caught sight of a familiar object passing along the lane.
It was the Grange sedan chair: the occupant thereof was no other than Lady Catherine herself, dressed for the approaching festivity. The chair was coming along at a good pace.
"Will you allow me to leave you for a few moments, madam?" said Kitty. "I see her ladyship's chair in the lane, and she is beckoning to me."
"By all means; run and pay your compliments to your godmother, Kitty. And tell her ladyship how I wish I had your health and strength; in that case I would wait upon her myself."
Kitty stayed to make sure that her mother's shawl was arranged just as she liked to have it, then she caught up the yellow roses, and made the best of her way across the garden. In searching for her handkerchief to dry the stalks of the flowers, she found a piece of paper, which she carefully wrapped round her nosegay. No drop of water must be permitted to fall on her godmother's gloves, or to soil the lace frills that she invariably wore on state occasions. In her excitement, Kitty gave not one thought to the contents of her pocket, nor had she a notion what was printed on that slip of paper, which assuredly ought to have been at that moment a little heap of ashes on the kitchen hearth. Full of joy, she ran into the lane. She was just in time. There was the sedan chair with its gilding and its silken tassels, and there, too, was Lady Catherine, turning a gracious face towards her young favourite.
James, her ladyship's servant, was behind the chair as usual. In front of the chair there stood a young man, a stranger, who seemed to make light of the burden he carried. Kitty wondered if her godmother had engaged a new attendant. As she advanced to the window, blushing and hesitating, to present her nosegay, the new attendant turned round, and Kitty perceived to her amazement that he was no servant, but a young gentleman, dressed, indeed, in sombre hues, but in handsome attire, from his laced hat to his silver shoe-buckles.
Covered with confusion, she thrust her sweet-scented nosegay into the window. "I trust, madam," she said, "that you will accept my roses. I plucked them for your ladyship this morning, and ran after your chair to bring them to you."
"Accept them! Indeed I will," replied the old lady, in ringing tones. "And you, my Kitty - kiss me, child. You are a very rose-bud yourself. I wanted to speak with you too. Will you come to-morrow, and look to my new embroidery stitch? Your young eyes see better than mine, I warrant. And hark ye, Harry" - waving a peremptory hand to her conductor - "put down the chair a moment - I will present you to the young lady."
The stranger obeyed instantly, and came to the side of the chair. "Your ladyship does me great honour," he said, and his voice was very pleasant.
"I intend to do you honour when I introduce you to my goddaughter, and the best girl in the parish. Kitty, this is my nephew, of whom you have heard me speak, lately returned from foreign parts. Allow me to present him to you - Mr Henry Ardingby - Miss Catherine Darracott."
Kitty curtseyed till the edge of her short frilled gown touched the gravel path, and the young man, bowing low, raised his hat with a profound sweep.
Kitty liked the look of Mr Ardingby, though she was too flustered to speak. Fortunately, speech was unnecessary, for her godmother preferred to conduct the conversation herself.
"You wondered who he was! I daresay now, child, if the truth was known, you imagined that I had hired a monstrous fine footman?"
"Yes, madam," stammered Kitty. "I mean - at least, I supposed that the gentleman was a stranger."
"That is my just punishment for having stayed away so long; but I trust that I shall not in the future be regarded as a stranger in my own county."
Mr Ardingby said this so kindly, that Kitty forgot her embarrassment, and fairly laughed at her own folly. It was too absurd to mistake this polished gentleman for the new servant.
"Harry hath a kind heart," put in the old lady, "though he does neglect us year in and year out. Old John is ill with the rheumatism, and I had well-nigh postponed my visit to the bishop's, when my nephew proposed to conduct me there. And we have come along at a smart pace; I shall give him a good character. Now, child, farewell! My compliments to your mother. Is your father returned?"
"No, madam; and we do not know which day to expect him. His affairs keep him in town."
"Hark ye, Kitty," said Lady Catherine, seriously; "it would be well for the squire if he meddled less with politics, and looked better after his estate. Mr Fox and his set are no friends for him."
"Madam," replied Kitty, with all the dignity she could muster, "my father will, I trust, soon be here to wait upon your ladyship. If you have any fault to find with his pursuits or his friends..."
"Tut, tut," interrupted the old lady good-naturedly; "you are a good child, and I mean no harm. Run now to your mother; and Kitty, I shall expect you to-morrow."
Thus dismissed, Kitty kissed her godmother's hand and retired; this time she had only a stiff salutation for the young man, who stood a silent spectator of the little scene.
"The young lady has dropped a paper," he said, stooping to pick up the wrapper that had fallen from the hastily-arranged nosegay. A few words of printed matter attracted his attention: he held in his hand the proof-sheet of an article on Reform. At the head of the article was the title of a newspaper the publication of which had lately been prohibited by Government. "The young lady's father is a Whig, I presume?" remarked Henry Ardingby, as he tucked the dangerous document into his waistcoat pocket.
"A Whig, forsooth! He is a revolutionist! I tell thee, Hal, if someone does not interfere, he will get himself into serious trouble ere long, and then his good wife and daughter will suffer."
Henry Ardingby took up the chair, and went his way perplexed. He knew far better than his aunt how high the strife waged between the friends of the people, who wished for reform, and those who regarded the very name of liberty with horror. In the eyes of many a Tory magnate the papers which Mistress Kitty had dropped were evidence enough to convict the squire of treason.
Henry Ardingby had spent the greater part of his time for the last six years in wandering about the continent, visiting one city after another, and indulging to the full his love of music and the fine arts. Now that he had returned to the country of his birth he found so much to do, that he began to consider whether he had not better stay at home altogether.
His aunt was entirely of opinion that his influence - on the right side, of course - would be of the greatest importance to the county; besides, she was growing old, and did not wish to be again separated from her nearest living relation. It was with feelings of pride that she contemplated her young kinsman; she liked him all the better for not agreeing with her on every point; and though (as a good Tory should) she looked upon the French as an unhappy people steeped in wickedness, she could not but admit that Harry had learnt wondrous pretty manners on the other side of the water.
On the following day, Kitty Darracott went across to Temple Grange, as in duty bound. Somewhat to her relief she found her godmother sitting alone before her tambour-frame in the long drawing-room, the walls of which were hung with pale blue silk. The old lady was in the cheeriest of moods, and as if to make up for her too outspoken frankness of yesterday, she received Kitty with extra affection.
The bringing of the embroidery into good order was a work of some time, and Kitty sat down before the tambour-frame with the fullest intention of accomplishing her task with diligence. Our best intentions are sometimes frustrated by circumstances. Before half an hour had passed, just as the young needlewoman perceived that her hostess had dropped asleep behind the shade of her green fan, steps were audible in the ante-room, and a hand was on the door.
She started to her feet, fairly confused with the recollection of the terrible blunder that she had been guilty of yesterday. Here was Mr Ardingby again, making his way in her direction. Would he remember that she had mistaken him for the new footman? She need not have been afraid. The young man had not given a second thought to the occurrence, though Miss Darracott herself had been in his mind very often since yesterday. He cast one glance in the direction of his slumbering aunt, and addressed himself to the visitor.
"I am very pleased to meet you, madam," he said. "I have been wishing for an opportunity of speech with you. You must forgive me if I cause you pain; but it is a serious subject."
The needle fell from Kitty's hand; she turned pale. "Is there bad news from home?" she asked in a terrified whisper.
"Nay, nay," was the kind answer. "I am a very clumsy person to have vexed you so. Why should you suppose that I was the messenger of such evil tidings?"
"I don't know. My mother is in better spirits than usual to-day; but I thought - it is foolish - but I thought the ill news was of my dear father, who is from home."
"I have heard no ill tidings of the squire except the tidings that you brought yourself, madam. I see that you do not understand. You must consider me a privileged person. Though I have not the honour of Mr Darracott's acquaintance, his name is well known to me; and my aunt has often spoken in praise of her goddaughter and namesake, Miss Catherine Darracott."
Now that it had come to the point, he found his task more difficult than he had anticipated. However, he had begun, and must go on with it; he only wished that the young lady would not look at him with such wistful eyes.
"Sir," she said, partly recovering from her scare, "I pray you pay me no compliments. Answer me truthfully. How and when did I bring evil tidings concerning my dear father?"
Henry came a step nearer; his aunt was still dozing in her arm-chair; there was no one to overhear the conversation.
"Do you recollect, madam, that you dropped a paper yesterday, when we had the pleasure of meeting you?"
She clasped her hands together; she remembered now what she had done. The young man went on quickly: "Believe me when I tell you that if that scrap of newspaper had fallen into the hands of our neighbour Mr Featherstone, he would have taken prompt means to punish the man who dared to patronise it, or - still worse - to write for it."
Kitty understood it all now. Mr Featherstone was a magistrate renowned for his violent temper, and, moreover, a personal enemy of her father’s. What had she done? Her father had trusted her, and she had ill deserved his confidence.
"It is my fault," she moaned in despair; "but I had not read it. I did not know. I will go to Mr Featherstone and implore him to be merciful."
"You will do nothing of the kind," said her companion decidedly. "He will never hear of its existence, I hope. Take my advice, madam, and forget all that you have heard to-day; only, for your father's sake, entreat him to be cautious in the future."
"I will do as you say. Tell me who found the paper? Where is it?"
"In my possession; no one else has seen it. Shall I destroy it now in your presence?"
He produced the slip of paper and deliberately tore it into a hundred fragments. The most bigoted Tory in England could not scent treason here.
The tears rose to Kitty's eyes. "You have saved me from a lifelong reproach," she said. "You are a loyal friend."
He had thought her a pretty, simple country girl before. Now he knew her to be a loving daughter, an unselfish woman. There was a movement from the arm-chair. Lady Catherine was waking up.
"Do not take all this too much to heart," he whispered; "and forgive me for the grief that I have caused you."
Kitty looked up into his face; the fine gentleman who made such elegant compliments had proved himself worthy of his old aunt's praise. She foresaw dimly that there might be trouble in the future; it would be easier to bear as long as Henry Ardingby remained at the Grange. Carried away by excitement, she had forgotten all etiquette and her strict notions of propriety; now they returned to her with greater force than ever.
"I thank you, sir," she said demurely, though her voice trembled, "for your kind advice, and I will endeavour to profit by it."
The fan fell to the floor with a crash, and Lady Catherine woke up to find Kitty bending over the tambour-frame and Henry standing by her side. "I closed my eyes for a few moments," observed the old lady affably; "but I heard Harry enter, and I have not missed a word of your conversation. My dear goddaughter I trust that you have not over-fatigued yourself? Must you leave me already? Remember, you are always a welcome visitor."
It was not until Kitty had been gone for some time that it occurred to Lady Catherine to look at the tambour-frame. The faulty corner had been unpicked, it is true, but not one stitch had Kitty set in its place.
"The child is ill, or out of spirits," cried the old lady in some agitation. "Harry, have you been saying ought to distress her?"
"Indeed, madam, I should be very loath to vex any lady who is a friend of yours, more especially Miss Darracott, for whom I entertain a high regard."
He spoke so seriously that his aunt was fain to believe him. Kitty walked home slowly across the fields, striving to recover her complete self-possession before she joined her mother. The country was looking very beautiful this afternoon; the haymakers were still at work in the fields. As Kitty passed along she gathered a great bundle of grass and wild flowers, wherewith to decorate her chamber at home. She paused to rest at a stile, from which a footpath led towards High Row. How peaceful was the scene! If only her father could be persuaded to come home all would go well. She had heard much of the wickedness of great towns. She yearned for news of her father; that last letter had been many days in coming, and Mr Ardingby's warning had made her doubly anxious.
"Kitty, my girl - well met!"
There was no mistaking that voice. There was no mistaking the square-set shoulders, the bronzed face, and kindly blue eyes of the man who was coming towards her.
"Father! My dear father!"
He held out his arms, and she sprang into them weeping. The squire dearly loved his daughter, and he sought to soothe her agitation to the best of his power. As he talked, making light of her alarm, she too almost forgot her fears. Father was so brave and honourable, who could wish him harm?
Coming, as he did, from London, where all sides had a hearing, Mr Darracott hardly realised how bitter was the feeling in the neighbourhood of Elmsfield against what was styled "the revolutionary party." Even the war with France, unsuccessful though it were, found favour with the country gentry; and when tidings arrived that the Habeas Corpus Act had been suspended, and the liberty of public meeting restricted, they rejoiced openly. Some of them went so far as to hint that there were traitors to be found at their own gateway.
On the occasion of a dinner given at the market town of Harlington, Mr Darracott met with a public rebuke from the chairman, and found himself treated with marked coldness by men with whom he had been intimate from his childhood. Rendered furious by such behaviour, he left the table, and, ordering his horse, rode off in a state of hot indignation, vowing vengeance against his adversaries, and declaring that the Featherstones more especially deserved chastisement at his hands.
A week or so later, Lady Catherine Ardingby issued invitations for a dinner-party. After much consideration she had laid her plans, as she imagined, with great diplomacy. She purposely invited Mr and Mrs Darracott to meet Mr Featherstone, his sons, and several other gentlemen of the same way of thinking; they would have a pleasant evening together at The Grange, and part good friends. "They will not dare to quarrel at my table," she thought, "and Harry will keep the young folks in order." It was a kindly plan, but unfortunately it did not act well. The squire refused point-blank to obey her ladyship's summons, and his wife and daughter departed in the chariot and pair without him.
Kitty was arrayed in a new sprigged muslin, her hair dressed in the latest fashion. The present was a grand occasion for the country maiden; she had never before been bidden to so formal an assembly. If it had not been for a lurking anxiety concerning her father she would have been radiantly happy. Alas! she was doomed to disappointment. It is true that her godmother and Mr Ardingby greeted her with every kindness; yet, placed between an elderly gentleman, and a shy youth with whom she was utterly unacquainted, she found her first dinner-party a tedious affair enough.
Kitty's mother, on the other hand, felt her spirits enlivened by the kind attentions of her host and hostess. It was long since she had spent an evening from home, and she signally failed to perceive that many of their old acquaintances stood aloof, or only vouchsafed her a formal greeting. Long before dinner was over, however, the hostess had become aware that her party was a failure, and could not be too grateful to dear Mrs Darracott for her blindness. It might be that she would drive off in her chariot and never discover that the breach between her husband and the neighbours was far from being healed.
When the ladies retired to the drawing-room, Lady Catherine despatched Kitty to the harpsichord, and bade her play and sing. The sounds of the instrument brought several of the younger men into the drawing-room, where Miss Darracott and her music became the centre of attraction. Here was a handsome girl with a pretty voice - Lady Catherine's especial favourite, too; it was not her fault if her father was an upholder of French principles. Everything was forgotten in the charm of Kitty's performance and her gentle modesty. Henry Ardingby was one of the younger members of the party who would fain have joined the fair musician in the drawing-room. During his visit at The Grange he had often met Miss Darracott, and yet he had not seen so much of her as he desired. The subject of the prohibited newspaper had never been referred to again. To-night, as he sat at the head of his aunt's table, he wondered if, in his dread of scaring the squire's daughter, he had represented matters in too light a fashion. Ah! there was an air of Mr Handel's - he heard it above the din of the dining-room. How much more amusement he would have found in playing Miss Kitty’s accompaniments than in listening to the talk of the worthy gentlemen around him!
In the meantime Kitty, having acquitted herself to the satisfaction of her audience, relinquished her place at the harpsichord to another performer, and retired. It was time that she joined her mother.
Two ladies, who had withdrawn from the musical circle, were talking as she passed.
"I fail to comprehend," said the younger lady, "why her ladyship is so infatuated with the girl."
"She is vastly pretty," was the reply. "I understand that her father has taken up all the new opinions, and is a most dangerous person."
"I am glad, for my part, that he is not present to-night. Such desperate characters should be thrust into prison, and not allowed to scatter their notions broadcast."
"Yet Mr Darracott is of good family. He must be losing his wits. My son affirms..."
"Hush!" cried the younger lady, with her finger to her lips. It was too late; the squire's daughter had heard every word of this incautious conversation. She went on, with heightened colour and a certain dignity of carriage that was not usual to her. Her pride was in arms. How did they dare to say such things? It seemed as if the whole world were in league to calumniate her father. She wished he would come and speak out in her godmother's house, and uphold the right and the cause of the poor as he had often done at home. All at once, as if in answer to the wish, she heard sounds across the passage; and above the talk, and the ringing of glasses, and the moving of chairs, there arose her father's voice raised in angry dispute.
What would be the result of his coming? Kitty turned her eyes to the doorway; Henry Ardingby had just entered the room.
"What is it?" she asked hastily as he reached her side. "If there is a quarrel amongst the gentlemen my mother must not know. It would make her ill."
"Your chariot is at the door, madam; and, loath as I am to say so, your departure would put an end to these unnecessary arguments."
"Yes - oh, yes! I will entreat my mother to leave. Will my father escort us?"
"I trust so; but I endeavoured in vain to persuade him to come hither."
"Tell him," said Kitty in desperation, "that my mother is over-fatigued - that she requires his arm. He will quit the company and come at once."
If the dispute in the dining-room waged much higher it might end in bloodshed, for Mr Darracott was as hot-headed as many a lad of twenty. Unlikely, as he considered it, that the squire would obey the summons, Henry Ardingby delivered Kitty's message. To his amazement the passionate champion of the rights of liberty rose immediately from the table, left his untasted glass, and without more ado proceeded to the drawing-room. With white face and set lips he paid his compliments to Lady Catherine (his sense of justice compelled him to acknowledge that it was not his hostess's fault that he had been insulted beneath her roof), and placed himself at his wife's service.
Out of respect to the ladies, some of the gentlemen had assembled in the hall to bid them good-night. Henry Ardingby noticed with inquietude that the younger and more violent guests - the sons of Mr Featherstone and their comrades - had withdrawn from the scene. Mrs Darracott walked across the hall on her husband's arm, bowing her acknowledgments. The squire held his head high, and looked straight in front of him. Kitty followed, escorted by her host.
"Are you remaining some time at The Grange?" she asked timidly. Henry Ardingby had arranged to depart on the following morning. Just now it seemed to him that he had better postpone his journey.
"I am not sure. Have you any commands for me?"
"Commands! No, sir; but I thought..." They were slowly descending the flight of steps that led to the carriage-drive. The moon was in the heavens - it was hardly dark as yet.
"What did you think?" asked the young man.
"It is perhaps, a fancy; but - you have seen that the gentlemen cannot agree, and that my dear father stands alone. I thought that if you remained here, he would not be so friendless."
The wind rustled in the trees. The servant let down the steps of the carriage with a crash. Mrs Darracott was being assisted to her seat.
"My influence is much smaller than you suppose," said Henry earnestly; "but I swear to you, dear madam, that as long as I live I will stand your honoured father's friend."
The last farewells were said, the heavy chariot had gone rumbling down the hill; he stood there in the gloaming thinking. By-and-by he walked in the direction of the stable, and gave orders that his horse was to be saddled, and held in readiness for him at any hour.
Kitty watched late that night; her mother had long ago retired to rest, and her father was writing in his study. The house was very quiet; every now and then a mouse ran to and fro behind the wainscot, or a door creaked - there was no other sound. Kitty was strangely wakeful. A feeling of nervous dread had taken possession of her, and she listened for the sound of her father's footstep on the stairs. The study was situated in a distant wing of the house; the servants were abed and asleep; it would be easy for any evil-minded person to... Fie! What thoughts were these? She gave herself a little shake. A Darracott, and to be afraid! She walked up and down, trying to lull her fears. She went to the open window and looked out into the rose garden, where the shadows of the yews loomed mysterious in the moonlight. The sound of a galloping horse fell upon her ears - faster and faster, nearer and nearer. "Some belated farmer," said Kitty to herself. Did ever farmer ride after that fashion? She could see the rider now - he had drawn rein at the garden gate; she could just distinguish the form of man and horse in the shadow. Now they had disappeared in the darkness; now the man was creeping along the side of the house, avoiding the moonlit paths. He was close beneath her window; he was nearing the side door; he turned his face upwards, and Kitty recognised the features of Henry Ardingby. At the same moment he made a gesture as if to entreat her silence, and pointed towards the door. Quick as thought she ran down the staircase; in the corridor she encountered her father, lamp in hand.
"Child, what is the meaning of this?"
"There is a messenger at the side door, sir, from The Grange. Let him in - pray let him in!"
The squire threw the door open, and Henry Ardingby stumbled over the threshold. His costume was covered with dust; he had ridden hard and fast.
"Sir!" he exclaimed, "there is mischief on hand. I have come to beg that you and the ladies will leave this house and return with me."
"Leave the house!" repeated the squire. "My dear sir, your senses are wandering."
"This is not the time for bandying words. I have just ridden over from Harlington. I am a mile or so ahead of some score of your enemies - the young Featherstones and a party of their sworn allies - bent on mischief. They have vowed to search the house for treasonable documents."
The squire thrust his hands deep into his pockets. "Madam will be alarmed if there should be a scuffle. Look you, Mr Ardingby, I will talk with the fellows; they will not dare to enter my house."
"Sir, they will dare everything. Do you hear them? They are in the village already."
Through the quiet night came the sound of horses' hoofs on the road and the shouts of men. The squire took his resolutions hastily.
"My wife and child will leave the house," he said; "they will be safe at the lodge. In the meantime I will look to the bars and bolts, and arouse the men."
"Father," burst out Kitty, "do not stay here alone!" She raised her eyes entreatingly to her father's face.
"It must be, child," he answered gently. "The young malaperts will otherwise burn the house about my ears. Fear not, my Kitty; quick, and prepare madam for departure."
The squire recognised the seriousness of his position. Such men as the young Featherstones had each a crowd of boon companions and retainers, who were ever read for mischief or the chance of plunder. Obstinate as he was, he might have given up his own will for the sake of his wife and daughter, but that another claim held him back. How could he leave the house to the mercy of such a rabble as this, when scattered about the library were letters and pamphlets the discovery of which might bring misery upon many an innocent family? He could not do it.
"Mr Ardingby," he said, in a stern voice, "as you are a man of honour, answer me truly. Will you convey my wife and daughter in safety to the lodge yonder, or to Temple Grange, as you think fit? Will you be answerable for their safety? The times are hard indeed when I must ask such a boon of any man."
"I promise you that I will do my best for the safety of the ladies," answered Henry Ardingby, "and, if needs be, give my life for their welfare. Once out of the garden, there is no danger for them."
The squire put his hand on the young man's shoulder. "God bless you, lad!" he said.
Perceiving farther remonstrance to be useless, Kitty had hastened to her mother's room. Mrs Darracott was easily aroused; but it required great tact to persuade her to dress quickly and prepare for instant departure. By the time she descended the stairs, clinging to her daughter's arm, the foremost horseman, Richard Featherstone, had thrown open the lodge-gate, and entered the grounds.
"They will suppose us to be abed and asleep," observed the squire grimly. "They will give me time to answer, I presume, before they break in the hall door. Besides, it is made of solid oak, and they may find entrance difficult. Now it is time for the ladies to leave. Kitty, my girl, be tender with your mother."
The hurry and fright had proved too much for Mrs Darracott, and she sank half-fainting in a chair. At the same moment a loud voice at the front door demanded immediate admittance. The squire lifted his wife gently to her feet; she opened her eyes, and allowed herself to be supported by Kitty and Mr Ardingby. "Come, dear mother," said Kitty; "you will be better in the air."
A brief farewell, and the fugitives had turned their backs on the old house, and were making their way towards the shrubbery. As they passed the high wall that separated the flower-garden from the carriage-drive, Kitty heard the angry talk of the men. The leader was evidently losing patience as he thundered at the door with the butt end of his whip. "We'll have no French spies hiding in our parts!" shouted one of the party, with such savage hatred that Kitty shuddered as she listened.
It was as well that the excited, clamorous crowd had no notion of what was taking place on the other side of the wall. They had risen from the supper-table at the instigation of Richard Featherstone to undertake the expedition to High Row. It was not likely that they would permit the departure of the ladies without some explanation. Mrs Darracott was utterly unequal to any explanation, and what Mistress Kitty might say in defence of her father would make no impression on this turbulent assembly.
As if to render the fugitives a service, a cloud veiled the surface of the moon. It was easy now to creep from the shelter of the wall to the tall yew tree, and from thence to the thicket where Henry had tied his horse. Kitty's whole energies were given up to helping her mother; afterwards she remembered that it was their guide who suggested which path they had better follow, who spoke words of encouragement to the invalid, and finally carried her into the lodge.
Old Matthew, having been disturbed by the noise, was up and about, only too ready to show sympathy with his mistress, and to speak his horror of the ruffians who had dared to terrify her. Meantime, the uproar increased rather than diminished. Henry Ardingby began to be seriously uneasy; he heard the squire in fierce altercation with young Featherstone, then the sound of a pistol, succeeded by furious knockings at the barred door. He longed to return to the squire's assistance; but his first duty was to provide for the safety of the ladies, and it appeared doubtful whether they could remain at the lodge unmolested. After a hasty survey of the premises, he came to the conclusion that, weak as Mrs Darracott was, she must be moved at once to the shelter of Temple Grange. His horse was accustomed to the shafts, and there was a light cart in Matthew's shed.
The arrangements were hastily made. Mrs Darracott and her daughter were lifted into a bed of straw at the back of the cart, and Henry Ardingby took the reins, urging his horse to its utmost speed. They had not left too soon. As they neared the brow of the hill a fierce yell rose high above the clamour of men and horses - the cry, "It burns! It burns!" Henry would not turn his head; he set his teeth and looked in front; there was no return possible now.
Kitty, looking over the side of the cart, saw long streaks of fire lighting the summer sky. Higher and higher they rose, thrusting out tongues of flame, half-concealed in curling smoke. The thatched roof was ablaze!
Up hill and down the good horse sped his way, carrying mother and daughter farther and farther from the scene of destruction and violence, till at last they stopped at the door of Temple Grange.
Lady Catherine was waiting to receive her friends, and she welcomed them with loving words and kindly ministrations. Mrs Darracott was conveyed at once to her room. Kitty tarried behind yet a moment.
Mr Ardingby had ordered a fresh horse to be brought round, and was about to mount and depart. At the sight of Miss Kitty's pale face and beckoning hand he strode to her side.
"I could not leave you, sir, without a word of thanks. Believe me, I am not ungrateful. But, my father - tell me, do you think that he is safe?"
"I cannot tell," he answered seriously. "I am going back to render him any assistance that lies in my power."
Kitty burst into tears. "You are going back to risk your life. How can I thank you?"
"I do not need thanks; it is my pleasure to serve you when I can. Take heart, dear madam. If I live I will bring him back to you."
"God bless and keep you!" sobbed Kitty.
She held out her hand, and the young man raised it to his lips.
The morn was breaking over the hills before Mrs Darracott fell into a peaceful slumber, and weary Kitty was free to rest her aching head on Lady Catherine's shoulder, and to pour forth the history of her trouble. There was still a red glow in the direction of High Row - the fire was not extinguished. How ardently Kitty longed for news; she dared not tell her godmother all she dreaded. She waited patiently for tidings of her father, and the true friend who had returned to his assistance. With her whole heart she prayed that it might please God to spare those two dear ones who were in peril.
It was daylight at last. Kitty could not rest. She stole out into the garden and listened; very soon a messenger must come. She strained her eyes in the direction of High Row, and by-and-by, toiling slowly along the road, she descried a carriage. Someone was leading the horses at a gentle pace, guiding them over the rough stones, and avoiding the cart-ruts.
A figure, muffled in wraps, lay stretched across the seat of the carriage. As Kitty sprang forward, she perceived that the man in charge of the horses was Mr Ardingby. He looked careworn and weary. At the sight of Kitty he raised his hat, and approached the carriage door.
"I have brought your father back, dear madam. There has been a scuffle, and he is hurt, but not seriously, I trust. I found him lying senseless in the hall - the rioters had fled in consternation. Mr Richard Featherstone, methinks, has found it easier to stir up strife than to quell it."
The young man was full of indignation: he could not forget the scene of which he had been a witness. Kitty had no thought for the rioters or the destruction of property. She only remembered that her prayers were answered. She had no words to express her thankfulness.
She threw open the carriage door. The morning air roused the squire from his lethargy. "You here, my child! I have saved the documents, and but little else. Where is madam? How hath she borne the journey?"
It was a month later, and the autumn was tardy in coming this year. One hot afternoon Kitty turned her steps towards a shady shrubbery in the Grange garden; from a point just beyond it she could obtain a view of her old home. Day by day she walked in this place to cast looks of longing in the direction of the ruined house.
The squire had recovered from his illness, but no effort had been made to restore the damage done on the night of the fire. He preferred rather to withdraw with his family to a much smaller house, situated on the borders of Lady Catherine Ardingby's property. Not that Mr Darracott need now have feared the animosity of his neighbours - popular feeling had veered round suddenly in his favour after the attack on his property. It was whispered abroad that there was no shadow of proof that the squire was a disloyal subject; in short, politics were merged in the universal indignation that a man of high standing should have been so shamefully handled. There was not a Tory gentleman for twenty miles round who refrained from calling on Mr Darracott now to express sympathy, or to offer advice concerning the rebuilding of the house.
Nevertheless, the squire remained staunch to his resolution. He would never again live at High Row, so the blackened walls and charred beams were untouched, and old Matthew had much ado to gain permission to keep the garden in order. Kitty was meditating on these things as she passed through the shrubbery. The moss at her feet was chequered with sunshine; this was a lovely spot, and pleasantly cool. She took off her hat, and paused to listen to the song of the birds and the many sounds and voices of the wood.
She turned, and became aware that Henry Ardingby was hastening towards her. In one hand he held a palette and brushes, in the other a basket of roses.
"Pardon me for intruding. I am painting close by, and I am very anxious to show you my handiwork, and to have your opinion of it. Will you look at my sketch?"
Kitty smiled. "I am afraid my opinion is worth but little to an accomplished artist; but such as it is, I will give it to you gladly."
"If you are satisfied, madam," said Mr Ardingby, "I fear no other critic."
He took her hand, and led her to a clearing where he had put his easel so as to command a fine view of the country. To the left a flight of stone steps communicated with the garden below. Kitty caught a glimpse of her father, who was holding an animated conversation with Lady Catherine.
"The squire told me that you would walk this way," began Henry apologetically. "I have been busy with my sketch, trusting that you might care to see it. Dear madam, may I offer you these few roses before we look at the picture?"
Kitty took the basket with a blush. "They remind me of home," she cried. "Why, they are my own yellow roses!"
"I ventured to pick them as I passed through your garden this morning. We have none so fine at the Grange."
"So my mother always says," said Kitty, bending over her flowers in delight. "It was a kind thought of yours, Mr Ardingby; but you have ever been considerate and thoughtful. I thank you heartily. Is this the picture of which you spoke?"
Kitty took her place in front of the easel, resting her feet on a cushion. She put the basket of roses on the ground and supported her chin on her hand. He had asked her opinion, and she was prepared to criticise; yet she remained silent.
She had often seen specimens of the artist's skill before, but never so clever and good a one as this. Before her she saw High Row as it used to be - the thatched roof, the old porch, the massive chimneys; every detail was correct, even to the clinging ivy that surrounded the parlour window where she had been wont to sit with her tambour-frame. As she gazed, a mist rose before her eyes. She started to her feet. Henry Ardingby was standing by awaiting her verdict.
"It is beautiful!" she said softly. "Do show it to my father. He may even be persuaded through the sight of your picture to give orders for the rebuilding of the house before the winter sets in."
"Your honoured father has taken me into his confidence concerning High Row, and he has listened to my confidence concerning a much more weighty matter. Dear madam, the restoration of the old home may begin to-morrow, if you will. It is for you to decide whether it shall be undertaken or not."
"For me!" repeated Kitty, astonished. "How can that be, sir?"
"The squire will never live there again - both he and madam are resolved upon that point; nevertheless, he would rejoice to see it inhabited. The riddle is not difficult to read. You once said that I was a true friend. Dear Kitty, let me be more to you than a friend. Consent to become my beloved and honoured wife, and believe me I will endeavour to be worthy of your regard. Will you trust me now as you did before? Will you accept my love and my life's devotion?"
Kitty held her hands towards him slowly. She could not but speak the truth in answer to his appeal.
"Dear sir, you proved yourself a loyal and true friend in the time of trouble," she said simply. "I like you very much, and I shall trust you always!"
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