Father and daughter stood facing each other in the gloomy prison of the Tolbooth: the girl's face was tense with emotion, and the man's eyes seemed to devour her with their gaze; for Sir John Cochrane believed that he was looking his last upon his favourite child.
He was not a man of great parts, nor one who can be regarded as in any sort a hero. He was more rash than brave, and his ill-judged support of the claims of the luckless Duke of Monmouth had brought him to his present doleful position—that of a prisoner in the hands of a deeply offended and implacable monarch, expecting each day to hear that his death-warrant had arrived from London.
Sir John had been one of the leaders of the insurrection in Scotland, which had been even more of a fiasco than the one conducted by Lord Grey in the West of England, where a temporary success at the outset had cheered and encouraged the adherents of the champion of Protestantism.
King James II., savage of temper and bitterly angry with all those concerned in this rebellion, had sent the terrible Jeffreys to the Western Assizes, which henceforth were to be known as the Bloody Assizes; and here, in Edinburgh, lay another illustrious victim, awaiting the king's warrant, which would doom him to the scaffold.
Whatever might have been his faults and errors in his public life, Sir John was a tender and loving husband and father. His wife, a delicate invalid, shattered by grief and anxiety, was unable to leave her room; but Grizel had come. Grizel had paid visits before this to her captive father, and each one was more sorrowful than the last, since the end must now be drawing very near.
"Methinks, my child," said the father hoarsely, "that this will be our last meeting on earth. They told me to-day that the death-warrant would, in all likelihood, be here in three days' time from this."
A quiver passed over Grizel's face; yet her voice was calm.
"Can our grandfather do nothing?" she asked.
Now Sir John's father was Lord Dundonald, a man of wealth and influence, and the question was a natural one to put.
"He is doing his utmost," answered Sir John, "I have had tidings of that. He has got the King's Confessor on his side, and they hope to gain the ear of His Majesty. But I fear me it will be all too late. If the warrant could be delayed, pardon might perchance reach in time; but as things now stand I fear to cherish hope. Let the will of God be done, my child. We must believe that He knows best."
A sudden light had flashed into Grizel's eyes, it illumined her whole face.
"Thou dost speak truth, my father," she said. "God, indeed, does know best; and let His will be done. But is it His will that one should perish whom even an earthly sovereign has pardoned, and who has never offended against Him?"
Sir John looked at her with a questioning gaze.
"God's ways, my daughter, are not as our ways, and His thoughts are past finding out. Let us brace our spirits for what may lie before us, and resign ourselves to that which He shall send. Kiss me once again, and bid me good-bye. It will not be for ever. This life is but a span, and we shall meet on the shores of eternity."
She flung her arms about his neck, and pressed her lips to his.
"Farewell, sweet father, farewell," she cried, with a little catch in her voice. "Farewell, but not good-bye. Something within me tells me that we shall meet again—in this life."
He looked into her strangely shining eyes, noted the resolute expression of her beautiful mouth, and asked almost anxiously:
"What dost thou mean, my child? What hast thou in that busy head of thine? Thou must run no risk for me; for thou art the stay and prop at home. Thou must be son, daughter, and husband—all to thy poor mother—when I am taken."
Steps were heard approaching. Grizel drew herself away, and looked once more into her father's face:
"Son and daughter—that will I be in all sooth, dear sir; but husband!—nay that will not be needed, methinks——"
"Grizel, what dost thou mean? What——"
The key was turning in the lock. She put her hands upon her father's shoulders and kissed him once again.
"Fear nothing," she said, "I am a Cochrane." And with those words on her lips she turned and left him, following her grim guide, the gaoler, till she stood outside in the street once more.
The same expression of high courage and resolve was on her face, as she pursued her way through the darkening streets, followed by the man-servant who had been awaiting her. But she did not go straight home. She turned aside up a narrow thoroughfare, and entered a house in it, with the familiarity of one who is known there intimately; and her servant had to wait long before his youthful mistress reappeared.
She went home, and went straight to her mother, who was weeping and praying in her upper chamber; there, kneeling beside the bed, Grizel told of the interview with her father, and then said in a low, earnest tone:
"Mother mine, give me thy blessing, for I must needs start forth this very night to save my father."
"Thou, child? What canst thou do?"
"Mother, I have a plan. I will not tell it thee, for it were better none should know. But pray for me whilst I am gone, that God will bless and watch over me. Methinks it was He who put the thought into my heart, and that He will speed me on my way and give me success in the carrying out of it."
"Thou wilt not run into danger, my child?" said the mother, who had come to lean upon Grizel, since her husband's captivity, almost as she would have done upon a son.
"I will not seek danger; I will avoid it where possible. But thou would'st not have me flinch, mother, when my father's life is at stake?"
"And thou must go to-night? But not alone?"
"I will take old Donald with me! And we must have the two best horses in the stable. But fear not, mother mine! In three or four days I will be back; and I trow that I shall have such news to tell, as will make thy heart sing aloud for joy."
That night, just before the gates of the city were shut, the guard saw two men riding forth together, the elder of whom he recognised as the old servant of the Cochranes. The younger of the pair, who looked like a youth, had his hat drawn somewhat close over his face. Donald gave the man a ready "Good-night," and paused a moment or two to gossip with him over the latest news from England.
"They say the next mail-bags will bring poor Sir John's death-warrant," remarked the soldier; "they must be in sore grief yonder, doubtless."
"How long does a letter take passing betwixt London and Edinburgh?" asked Donald.
"A matter of eight days each way," answered the man; and, after a few more words, Donald rode on, and joined his companion speedily.
"Eight days?" spoke a soft voice, not much like a youth's, as Donald told the news; "then, should anything go wrong with the warrant, it would be full sixteen days ere another could be got from London. Sure that would give the time—the time so sorely needed. Sixteen days!" and the words ended in a deep-drawn breath.
The old servant looked with loving eyes at the youth—who, of course, was none other than Grizel habited in the attire of a lad—a plain and inconspicuous riding suit, which she had borrowed from the brother of a dear friend, and which a little skill had altered to fit her slim figure well. Her floating locks aroused no suspicion as to her sex, in days when huge wigs adorned (or disfigured) the heads of men, and where those who could not afford these costly luxuries, and yet desired to keep in the fashion, let their own hair grow, and kept it curled and powdered. There was nothing specially womanish in the aspect of Grizel's abundant, curly hair flowing over her shoulders. She looked exactly like a smooth-faced boy, and bore herself with a bold and boyish air so soon as they were beyond the radius of the locality where her face might be known. By the time that the pair rode into the city of Berwick-upon-Tweed Grizel had come to feel so well at home in her part that she feared neither to converse with those about her, nor to show herself abroad in the unfamiliar habiliments of the other sex.
"Donald," she said, that night before they sought their beds, "we are in time. The mail has not yet passed through. To-morrow, bide thou here, whilst I ride to Belford, where I hear the messenger with the mails always pauses for a few hours' sleep. If he come hither with his mail-bags undisturbed, use thou thy wits, and seek to accomplish that in which I shall then have failed; but if he should bring news that he has been robbed, then set spurs to thy horse, and meet me at the house that I did point out to you as we rode into the town; and bring without fail the bag containing mine own attire and saddle: for then I must no longer travel as I do now."
Donald was loth to let his young mistress ride forth unattended; but Grizel would not have it otherwise. She believed that she would accomplish the thing better alone; and by leaving Donald in the place through which the messenger must pass, she felt that she gave herself another chance, should her first scheme miscarry.
The landlady of the little wayside inn at Belford smiled upon the bright-faced youth who reined up at her door and asked for a meal for himself and his horse.
"Step softly, if you will, fair sir," she said, pausing as she opened the door of the one room the inn boasted for the accommodation of travellers, "for the bearer of His Majesty's mail-bags stops here each time he passes, and has a spell of sleep ere he rides on to Berwick. He is sleeping soundly now, and I would not willingly have him disturbed. 'Tis a weary ride from London."
Grizel's heart beat thick and fast as she stepped softly within the room, golden possibilities presenting themselves to her imagination of getting at the bags and destroying certain of its contents, whilst the messenger slept the sleep of exhausted nature close beside her. But alas for her hopes! when she saw the sleeper, stretched snoring upon the alcove bed let into the wall, she noted that he had placed his bags for his pillow, and that each bag was securely sealed. This being so, she could neither possess herself of them without too great risk, nor undo and purloin papers without instant detection.
Food was brought to her, and she forced herself to eat, for she knew well that she might need all her strength and powers of endurance that day. And whilst she dined, and the man slumbered, her quick wits were working at full speed.
Outside, the voices of the landlady and the ostler told her that she would not be disturbed by a visitor just now. The pistols of the messenger lay upon the table almost within reach of her hand. With a quick, stealthy gesture she drew them towards her, and quickly removed the charges; putting the weapons back accurately in their place when she had done.
Then, rising from the table, she went out, paid her reckoning, mounted her horse, and rode leisurely away.
"Your guest sleeps sound," had been her parting remark to the woman.
"Ay, that he do, poor fellow, and I'm grateful that you've not wakened him, sir; but I must go and do so soon, since he must be on the road again in half an hour's time."
"Then I shall not have long to wait to know my fate," said Grizel, between her shut teeth, as she set her horse at a gentle trot. "If he looks to his pistols when he gets up and loads again, the chances are that I shall have an ounce or two of cold lead in my brain ere an hour be past. If not, well then I may have my father's death-warrant safe in mine own hands in that time! Is that hope not enough for me gladly to take all the chance of what may else betide!"
The light sprang into Grizel's eyes—the light of a deep devotion. She looked round at the fair world of nature with the unconsciously wistful gravity of one who knows he may be looking his last; of one who feels possible death within measurable distance. Yet there was not a sign of flinching in that fair face. The soldier spirit, and the spirit of devoted love were burning upon the altar of her heart. There was no room for thoughts of self there.
The beat of horse-hoofs behind her told that the moment had come. The man with the mail-bags strapped to his saddle was advancing rapidly towards her. Grizel reined back her horse into the shadow of the trees, and drew out a pistol from her belt. Her heart beat fast and furiously.
Next moment the man had ridden up.
"Stand and deliver!" shouted Grizel, in the most masculine voice she was capable of assuming; then as the man reined up and regarded the slight, boyish-looking youth with glances of inquiry and surprise, she added in a quieter tone: "Sir, I desire to obtain possession of certain papers in those bags of yours; wherefore deliver them up peaceably to me, and your life will be safe. Otherwise——" and here Grizel rode full up to the messenger with her pistol pointed at his head.
In a moment the fellow had whipped out his own weapon; and was holding it close against her cheek.
"Lay so much as a finger on His Majesty's mails, and I blow out your brains," he cried; "I am not one to shed blood needlessly, and thou art a mere boy; but not a finger shalt thou lay upon my bags."
"Nevertheless, it is those bags I mean to have," said Grizel, and put out a hand to take them.
Click! went the trigger, there was a flash in the pan—nothing more. Grizel's heart leapt up within her. He was at her mercy now. She would gain her end! With an exclamation of astonished dismay the man pulled out the second pistol. Grizel watched him with a smile. The weapon played him the same trick. He flung it from him with an oath, and threw himself off his horse to grapple with his slim antagonist, notwithstanding that the lad held a pistol in his hand.
Now was quick-witted Grizel's opportunity. She seized the reins of the horse, dashed spurs into her own, and set off at full gallop with the mail-bags, ere the astonished man well knew what had happened. She had travelled a quarter of a mile before she paused to look over her shoulder, and saw the breathless messenger tearing along, panting and blowing. Grizel calmly dismounted, and tied the horses to a tree hard by. Then, pistol in hand, she advanced, and signalled the man to stop, which he did.
"Good friend," she said, "I do not desire to kill thee, so come no nigher. Nor do I want any but a few of the papers in yon bags. Wherefore, go back, I pray you, to the inn for one brief hour; and then, when you return, you shall find your horse and your bags all safe in this spot; and you may take the news to Berwick as fast as you will!"
A strange bewilderment had taken possession of the man, or else there was something very compelling in the presence and pistol of Grizel, for he turned back slowly and walked away, whilst the girl went back to her precious bags.
These were soon opened and the mere private letters tossed aside. Here was a likely looking bundle of great parchments with the seals upon them, which told that they had come from high places. With a beating heart Grizel tore open this bundle and looked at its contents. Her head seemed to swim and her cheek grew white as her eyes read the fatal words that doomed her father to death. There were other parchments, too, with lighter sentences of fine or imprisonment for others—some of them friends—who had taken part in the recent insurrection. All these she took with her, carefully hiding them upon her person; tied up the bags, replaced them upon the tethered horse, and, mounting her own, set spurs to him, and never drew rein till she was safe within the walls of Berwick, and within the friendly shelter of a kinsman's house.
With a beating heart Grizel tore open this bundle and looked at its contents.
Here, with bated breath, she told her tale, and showed the priceless papers. Here Donald found her, bringing tidings that the whole town was ringing with the news of how His Majesty's mails had been robbed by a daring young highwayman. Here, by a blazing fire, Grizel destroyed, one by one, the fatal documents that else would have desolated so many homes; and whilst soldiers were going forth to scour the country round for the youth who had done that daring deed, and who was regarded as a member of some regular gang, Grizel, in her own attire, was quietly riding away towards Edinburgh from her kinsman's house, with the old serving-man in attendance at her side.
It was dusk one evening when Grizel found her way to her mother's room, and, kneeling down beside the bed, broke quite unexpectedly into convulsive weeping. Nature was taking her revenge at last; but Lady Cochrane sat up, and, folding her arms about her daughter, cried in a strangled voice:
"The will of God be done, my child. No one can achieve the impossible!"
Grizel could not speak; she tried many times, but always broke down, and suddenly there were sounds in the house of confusion and excitement, the door was burst open, and two of the younger girls broke in.
"Mother, mother, all Edinburgh is ringing with the news! A young highway robber has stopped the messenger who was bringing our father's death-warrant, and it has been stolen, and other expected papers too. And there can be nothing done to him till the news has gone to London, and the messenger has returned with a new warrant. And that will mean time!—time!—time! And if our grandfather's letter be true: why time is all we need!"
The mother's face had turned from red to white, and from white to red. Grizel's was hidden in the bed-clothes. Her sisters thought her overcome by the news they had brought.
"Ask me nothing, mother, yet," gasped Grizel, when they were alone together, "I will tell all when my father is pardoned!"
Great was the stir and excitement that prevailed when the story of the robbery became known. Lady Cochrane herself was so far uplifted by hope as to be able to leave her bed, and drive to the Tolbooth to visit her husband; and thus it came about that she had the joy of being with him when the Earl of Dundonald, who had travelled with the greatest possible speed from London, in terror and almost despair of being in time, was ushered into his son's prison, and fell upon his neck crying:
"Ah, John, John, thou hast been a sad fool, my boy; but the King's Majesty has been pleased to grant thee a pardon, thou art a free man from this hour!"
Then husband and wife fell into each other's arms and wept aloud, whilst the old Earl, after storming up and down, and rating his son for his folly, broke down and wept too; and who so proud and happy as Lady Cochrane as she led her husband home at last, and set him in his own accustomed chair before the fireside!
That night Lord Dundonald had to tell all his tale of how the pardon had been procured; bought practically for many thousand pounds, through the influence of a priest. But little cared the family for aught save the one great fact, they had their loved one home again. His life was safe. He was theirs indeed!
But Sir John missed Grizel from the group. She had slipped away whilst her grandfather's tale was drawing to a close. Why did she not return?
It was old Donald who entered the room after a while and said: "May it please you, master, the young man who stopped the messenger, and robbed the King's mails, craves leave of speech with you, if you will give him a brief audience."
Sir John uttered an eager exclamation of astonishment and pleasure. His wife caught her breath, and her hands began to tremble.
"Let him come in! Oh, bring him here!" was the general cry, and Lord Dundonald added: "Doubtless he comes for his reward, and right willingly will I give it him; for had it not been for that daring deed of his, my labour and my gold would alike have been thrown away. I could never have arrived in time. Thy head would have fallen, John, or ever I had reached Edinburgh. It was with more of despair than of hope that I rode those weary miles. Though something within me always bid me not give up."
It was a large room in which they sat, and the farther end was in deep shadow. All turned with breathless expectancy as Donald come in, bringing with him a slenderly made youth, who wore his hat so deeply drawn over his face that nothing of the features could be seen. Perhaps it was from a lack of knowledge of good manners on his part that he did not remove it upon entering; or perhaps he was too shy to lift his eyes, and observe the presence of ladies. Shyness does occasionally go hand in hand with considerable personal courage.
"This is the youth who robbed the King's mails," said old Donald, in a voice not quite his own.
"My deliverer!" exclaimed Sir John, rising, "and so young and slight, and of such tender years too! How can I ever thank you enough! Pray you, dear sir, come somewhat forward, and let us see the face of one to whom we all owe this great and unspeakable happiness."
Slowly the stranger advanced, at first with drooping head; then suddenly he flung away his downcast air, put up his hand, and snatched off his hat!
There was a cry from all present! The mother clasped her hands together and whispered:
"I knew it! I knew it!"
The Earl stared as though he could not believe the sight of his eyes. The sisters shrieked and broke into incoherent questioning; but Sir John opened his arms uttering no word, and Grizel went straight into them, and hid her face on his breast.