The Tory Lover -- Contents
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The Tory Lover by Sarah Orne Jewett

Chapter XLIII
THEY FOLLOW THE DIKE

 
"There's not a fibre in my trembling frame
That does not vibrate when thy step draws near."
 

     Early in the morning of that day, when Mr. John Davis had been returning from a brief visit to his counting-room, he was surprised at being run against by a disreputable looking fellow, who dashed out of a dirty alley, and disappeared again as quickly, after putting a letter into his hand. The alderman turned, irate, to look after this lawless person, and then marched on with offended dignity up the hill. When he had turned a safe corner he stopped, and, holding his stout cane under his arm, proceeded to unfold the paper. He had received threats before in this fashion, like all magistrates or town officials; some loose fellow warned off, or a smuggler heavily fined, would now and then make threats against the authorities.

     The letter in his hand proved to be of another sort. It might be dingy without, but within the handwriting was that of a gentleman.

     "Dear Sir," he read slowly, "my father's old friend and mine, - I ask your kind assistance in a time of great danger, and even distress. I shall not venture to Bristol before I have your permission. I am late from prison, where I was taken from an American frigate. At last I have found a chance to get to Chippenham market as a drover, and I hope to reach Old Passage Inn (where I was once in your company) early in the night on Friday. Could you come or send to meet me there, if it is safe? I know or guess your own principles, but for the sake of the past I think you will give what aid he needs to Roger W -- , of Piscataqua, in New England. Your dear lady, my kinswoman, will not forget the boy to whom she was ever kind, nor will you, dear sir, I believe. I can tell you everything, if we may meet. What I most desire is to get to France, where I may join my ship. This goes by a safe hand."

     The reader struck his cane to the sidewalk, and laughed aloud.

     "What will little missy say to this?" he said, as he marched off. "I'll hurry on to carry her the news!"

     Miss Hamilton ran out to meet the smiling old man, as she saw him coming toward the house, and was full of pretty friendliness before he could speak.

     "You were away before I was awake," she said, "and I have been watching for you this half hour past, sir. First, you must know that dear Madam Wallingford is better than for many days, and has been asking for you to visit her, if it please you. And I have a new plan for us. Some one has sent me word that there may be news out of the Mill Prison, if we can be at the inn at Passage to-night. I hope you will not say it is too far to ride," she pleaded; "you have often shown me the place when we rode beyond Clifton" -

     Mr. Davis's news was old already; his face fell with disappointment.

     "It was a poor sailor who brought me word," she continued, speaking more slowly, and watching him with anxiety. "Perhaps we shall hear from Roger. He may have been retaken, and some one brings us word from him, who has luckily escaped."

     The old merchant looked at Mary shrewdly. "You had no message from Wallingford himself?" he asked.

     "Oh no," said the girl wistfully; "that were to put a happy end to everything. But I do think that we may have news of him. If you had not come, I should have gone to find you, I was so impatient."

     Mr. Davis seated himself in his chair, and took on the air of a magistrate, now that they were in the house. After all, Roger Wallingford could know nothing of his mother or Miss Hamilton, or of their being in England; there was no hint of them in the note.

     "I suppose that we can make shift to ride to Passage," he said soberly. "It is not so far as many a day's ride that you and I have taken this year; but I think we may have rain again, from the look of the clouds, and I am always in danger of the gout in this late summer weather. Perhaps it will be only another wild-goose chase," he added gruffly, but with a twinkle in his eyes.

     "If I could tell you who brought the news!" said Mary impulsively. "No, I must not risk his name, even with you, dear friend. But indeed I have great hope, and Madam is strangely better; somehow, my heart is very light!"

     The old man looked up with a smile, as Mary stood before him. He had grown very fond of the child, and loved to see that the drawn look of pain and patience was gone now from her face.

     "I wish that it were night already. When can we start?" she asked.

     "Friday is no lucky day," insisted Mr. John Davis, "but we must do what we can. So Madam's heart is light, too? Well, all this may mean something," he said indulgently. "I must first see some of our town council who are coming to discuss important matters with me at a stated hour this afternoon, and then we can ride away. We have searched many an inn together, and every village knows us this west side of Dorset, but I believe we have never tried Old Passage before. Put on your thick riding gown with the little capes; I look for both rain and chill."

     The weather looked dark and showery in the east; the clouds were gathering fast there and in the north, though the sun still fell on the long stretch of Dundry. It had been a bright day for Bristol, but now a dark, wet night was coming on. The towers of the abbey church and St. Mary Radcliffe stood like gray rocks in a lake of fog, and if he had been on any other errand, the alderman would have turned their horses on the height of Clifton, and gone back to his comfortable home. The pretty chimes in the old church at Westbury called after them the news that it was five o'clock, as they cantered and trotted on almost to the borders of the Severn itself, only to be stopped and driven to shelter by a heavy fall of rain. They were already belated, and Mr. Davis displeased himself with the thought that they were in for a night's absence, and in no very luxurious quarters. He had counted upon the waning moon to get them back, however late, to Bristol; but the roads were more and more heavy as they rode on. At last they found themselves close to the water-side, and made their two horses scramble up the high dike that bordered it, and so got a shorter way to Passage and a drier one than the highway they had left.

     The great dike was like one of the dikes of Holland, with rich meadow farms behind it, which the high tides and spring floods had often drowned and spoiled in ancient days. The Severn looked gray and sullen, as they rode along beside it; there were but two or three poor fishing craft running in from sea, and a very dim gray outline of the Welsh hills beyond. There was no comfortable little haven anywhere in view in this great landscape and sea border; no sign of a town or even a fishing hamlet near the shore; only the long, curving line of the dike itself, and miles away, like a forsaken citadel, the Passage Inn stood high and lonely. The wind grew colder as they rode, and they rode in silence, each lamenting the other's discomfort, but clinging to the warm, unquenchable hope of happiness that comforted their hearts. There were two or three cottages of the dikekeepers wedged against the inner side of the embankment, each with a little gable window that looked seaward. One might lay his hand upon the low roofs in passing, and a stout bench against the wall offered a resting-place to those travelers who had trodden a smooth footpath on the top of the dike.

     Now and then the horses must be made to leap a little bridge, and the darkness was fast gathering. Down at the cottage sides there were wallflowers on the window-sills, and in the last that they passed a candle was already lighted, and bright firelight twinkled cheerfully through the lattice. They met no one all the way, but once they were confronted by a quarrelsome, pushing herd of young cattle returning from the salt sea-pasturage outside. There was a last unexpected glow of red from the west, a dull gleam that lit the low-drifting clouds above the water, and shone back for a moment on the high windows of the inn itself, and brightened the cold gray walls. Then the night settled down, as if a great cloud covered the whole country with its wings.
 

     Half an hour later Mr. John Davis dismounted with some difficulty, as other guests now in the inn had done before him, and said aloud that he was too old a man for such adventures, and one who ought to be at home before his own good fire. They were met at the door by the mistress of the inn, who had not looked for them quite so early, though she had had notice by the carrier out of Bristol of their coming. There was a loud buzz of voices in the inn kitchen; the place was no longer lonely, and an unexpected, second troop of noisy Welsh pack men and drovers were waiting outside for their suppers, before they took the evening packet at the turn of tide. The landlady had everything to do at once; one of her usual helpers was absent; she looked resentful and disturbed.

     "I'd ought to be ready, sir, but I'm swamped with folks this night," she declared. "I fear there'll be no packet leave, either; the wind's down, and the last gust's blown. If the packet don't get in, she can't get out, tide or no tide to help her. I've got your fire alight in the best room, but you'll wait long for your suppers, I fear, sir. My kitchen's no place for a lady."

     "Tut, tut, my good lass!" said the alderman. "We'll wait an' welcome. I know your best room, - 't is a snug enough place; and we'll wait there till you're free. Give me a mug of your good ale now, and some bread and cheese, and think no more of us. I expect to find a young man here, later on, to speak with me. There's no one yet asking for me, I dare say? We are before our time."

     The busy woman shook her head and hurried away, banging the door behind her; and presently, as she crossed the kitchen, she remembered the young gentleman in the rough clothes upstairs, and then only thanked Heaven to know that he was sound asleep, and not clamoring for his supper on the instant, like all the rest.

     "I'll not wake him yet for a bit," she told herself; "then they can all sup together pleasant, him and the young lady."

     Mr. Davis, after having warmed himself before the bright fire of coals, and looked carefully at the portrait of his Majesty King George the Third on the parlor wall, soon began to despair of the ale, and went out into the kitchen to take a look at things. There was nobody there to interest him much, and the air was stifling. Young Wallingford might possibly have been among this very company in some rough disguise, but he certainly was not; and presently the alderman returned, followed by a young maid, who carried a tray with the desired refreshments.

     "There's a yellow-faced villain out there; a gallows bird, if ever I saw one!" he said, as he seated himself again by the fire.

     Mary Hamilton stood by the window, to watch if the captain might be coming. It was already so dark that she could hardly see what might happen out of doors. She envied her companion the ease with which he had gone out to take a look at the men in the great kitchen; but Paul Jones would be sure to look for her when he came; there was nothing to do but to wait for him, if one could only find proper patience. The bleak inn parlor, scene of smugglers' feasts and runaway weddings, was brightened by the good fire. The alderman was soon comforted in both mind and body, and Mary, concealing her impatience as best she could, shared his preliminary evening meal, as she had done many a night, in many an inn, before. She had a persistent fear that Paul Jones or his messenger might come and go away again, and she grew very anxious as she sat thinking about him; but as she looked up and began to speak, she saw that the tired old man could not answer; he was sound asleep in his chair. The good ale had warmed and soothed him so that she had not the heart to wake him. She resigned herself to silence, but listened for footsteps, and to the ceaseless clink of glasses and loud clatter of voices in the room beyond. The outer door had a loud and painful creak, and for a long time she heard nobody open it, until some one came to give a loud shout for passengers who were intending to take the packet. Then there was a new racket of departure, and the sound of the landlady angrily pursuing some delinquent guest into the yard to claim her pay; but still Mr. Davis slept soundly. The poor woman would be getting her kitchen to rights now; presently it would be no harm to wake her companion, and see if their business might not be furthered. It was not late; they really had not been there much above an hour yet, only the time was very slow in passing; and as Mary watched Mr. John Davis asleep in his chair, his kind old face had a tired look that went to her affectionate heart. At last she heard a new footstep coming down the narrow stairway into the passage. She could not tell why, but there was a sudden thrill at her heart. There was a tumult in her breast, a sense of some great happiness that was very near to her; it was like some magnet that worked upon her very heart itself, and set her whole frame to quivering.


Note

There's not afibre in my trembling frame: from "My Love," a sonnet by Fanny Kemble (1809-1893). (Research: Gabe Heller).
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wallflowers: A plant of the genus cheiranthus (N.O. cruciferæ), esp. C. cheiri, growing wild on old walls, on rocks, in quarries, etc., and cultivated in gardens for its fragrant flowers (normally yellow or orange, though other colours are produced by cultivation).  Also called Gilliflower. (Source: OED; research: Travis Feltman)
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The Tory Lover -- Contents