Epoch the First
Chapter III. The Face at the Window
 

At the governor's table that night certain ladies and gentlemen assembled to do the envoy honour. There came, too, a young gentleman, son of a distinguished New Englander, his name George Gering, who was now in New York for the first time. The truth is, his visit was to Jessica, his old playmate, the mistress of his boyhood. Her father was in England, her mother had been dead many years, and Colonel Nicholls and his sister being kinsfolk, a whole twelvemonth ago she had been left with them. Her father had thought at first to house her with his old friend Edward Gering, but he loved the Cavalier-like tone of Colonel Nicholls's household better than the less inspiriting air which Madam Puritan Gering suffused about her home. Himself in early youth had felt the austerity of a Cavalier father turned a Puritan on a sudden, and he wished no such experience for his daughter. For all her abundancy of life and feeling, he knew how plastic and impressionable she was, and he dreaded to see that exaltation of her fresh spirit touched with gloom. She was his only child, she had been little out of his sight, her education had gone on under his own care, and, in so far as was possible in a new land, he had surrounded her with gracious influences. He looked forward to any definite separation (as marriage) with apprehension. Perhaps one of the reasons why he chose Colonel Nicholls's house for her home, was a fear lest George Gering should so impress her that she might somehow change ere his return. And in those times brides of sixteen were common as now they are rare.

She sat on the governor's left. All the brightness, the soft piquancy, which Iberville knew, had returned; and he wondered--fortunate to know that wonder so young--at her varying moods. She talked little, and most with the governor; but her presence seemed pervasive, the aura in her veins flowed from her eye and made an atmosphere that lighted even the scarred and rather sulky faces of two officers of His Majesty near. They had served with Nicholls in Spain, but not having eaten King Louis's bread, eyed all Frenchmen askance, and were not needlessly courteous to Iberville, whose achievements they could scarce appreciate, having done no Indian fighting.

Iberville sat at the governor's end, Gering at the other. It was noticed by Iberville that Gering's eyes were much on Jessica, and in the spirit of rivalry, the legitimate growth of race and habit, he began to speak to her with the air of easy but deliberate playfulness which marked their first meeting.

Presently she spoke across the table to him, after Colonel Nicholls had pledged him heartily over wine. The tone was a half whisper as of awe, in reality a pretty mockery. "Tell me," she said, "what is the bravest and greatest thing you ever did?"

"Jessica, Jessica!" said the governor in reproof. An old Dutch burgher laughed into his hand, and His Majesty's officers cocked their ears, for the whisper was more arresting than any loud talk. Iberville coloured, but the flush passed quickly and left him unembarrassed. He was not hurt, not even piqued, for he felt well used to her dainty raillery. But he saw that Gering's eyes were on him, and the lull that fell as by a common instinct--for all could not have heard the question--gave him a thrill of timidity. But, smiling, he said drily across the table, his voice quiet and clear: "My bravest and greatest thing was to answer an English lady's wit in English."

A murmur of applause ran round, and Jessica laughed and clapped her hands. For the first time in his life Gering had a pang of jealousy and envy. Only that afternoon he had spent a happy hour with Jessica in the governor's garden, and he had then made an advance upon the simple relations of their life in Boston. She had met him without self- consciousness, persisting in her old ways, and showing only when she left him, and then for a breath, that she saw his new attitude. Now the eyes of the two men met, and Gering's dark face flushed and his brow lowered. Perhaps no one saw but Iberville, but he, seeing, felt a sudden desire to play upon the other's weakness. He was too good a sportsman to show temper in a game; he had suddenly come to the knowledge that love, too, is a game, and needs playing. By this time the dinner was drawing to its close and now a singular thing happened. As Jessica, with demure amusement, listened to the talk that followed Iberville's sally, she chanced to lift her eyes to a window. She started, changed colour, and gave a little cry. The governor's hand covered hers at once as he followed her look. It was a summer's night and the curtained windows were partly open. Iberville noted that Jessica's face wore the self-same shadow as in the afternoon when she had seen the stranger with Radisson.

"What was it, my dear?" said the governor.

She did not answer, but pressed his hand nervously. "A spy, I believe," said Iberville, in a low voice. "Yes, yes," said Jessica in a half whisper; "a man looked in at the window; a face that I have seen--but I can't remember when."

The governor went to the window and drew the curtains. There was nothing to see. He ordered Morris, who stood behind his chair, to have the ground searched and to bring in any straggler. Already both the officers were on their way to the door, and at this point it opened and let in a soldier. He said that as he and his comrade were returning from their duty with Radisson they saw a man lurking in the grounds and seized him. He had made no resistance, and was now under guard in the ante-room. The governor apologised to his guests, but the dinner could not be ended formally now, so the ladies rose and retired. Jessica, making a mighty effort to recover herself, succeeded so well that ere she went she was able to reproach herself for her alarm; the more so because the governor's sister showed her such consideration as would be given a frightened child--and she had begun to feel something more.

The ladies gone, the governor drew his guests about him and ordered in the prisoner. Morris spoke up, saying that the man had begged an interview with the governor that afternoon, but, being told that his excellency was engaged, had said another hour would do. This man was the prisoner. He came in under guard, but he bore himself quietly enough and made a low bow to the governor. He was not an ill-favoured fellow. His eye was steely cold, but his face was hearty and round, and remarkably free from viciousness. He had a cheerful air and an alert freedom of manner, which suggested good-fellowship and honest enterprise.

Where his left hand had been was an iron hook, but not obtrusively in view, nor did it give any marked grimness to his appearance. Indeed, the effect was almost comical when he lifted it and scratched his head and then rubbed his chin with it; it made him look part bumpkin and part sailor. He bore the scrutiny of the company very well, and presently bowed again to the governor as one who waited the expression of that officer's goodwill and pleasure.

"Now, fellow," said the colonel, "think yourself lucky my soldiers here did not shoot you without shrift. You chance upon good-natured times. When a spying stranger comes dangling about these windows, my men are given to adorning the nearest tree with him. Out with the truth now. Who and what are you, and why are you here?"

The fellow bowed. "I am the captain of a little trading schooner, the Nell Gwynn, which anchors in the roadstead till I have laid some private business before your excellency and can get on to the Spanish Indies."

"Business--private business! Then what in the name of all that's infernal," quoth Nicholls, "brought your sneaking face to yon window to fright my lady-guests?" The memory of Jessica's alarm came hotly to his mind. "By Heaven," he said, "I have a will to see you lifted, for means to better manners."

The man stood very quiet, now and again, however, raising the hook to stroke his chin. He showed no fear, but Iberville, with his habit of observation, caught in his eyes, shining superficially with a sailor's open honesty, a strange ulterior look. "My business," so he answered Nicholls, "is for your excellency's ears." He bowed again.

"Have done with scraping. Now, I tell you what, my gentle spy, if your business hath not concern, I'll stretch you by your fingers there to our public gallows, and my fellows shall fill you with small shot as full as a pod of peas."

The governor rose and went into another room, followed by this strange visitor and the two soldiers. There he told the guard to wait at the door, which entered into the ante-room. Then he unlocked a drawer and took out of it a pair of pistols. These he laid on the table (for he knew the times), noting the while that the seaman watched him with a pensive, deprecating grin.

"Well, sir," he said sharply (for he was something nettled), "out with your business, and your name in preface."

"My name is Edward Bucklaw, and I have come to your excellency because I know there is no braver and more enterprising gentleman in the world." He paused. "So much for preamble; now for the discourse."

"By your excellency's leave. I am a poor man. I have only my little craft and a handful of seamen picked up at odd prices. But there's gold and silver enough I know of, owned by no man, to make cargo and ballast for the Nell Gwynn, or another twice her size."

"Gold and silver," said the governor, cocking his ear and eyeing his visitor up and down. Colonel Nicholls had an acquisitive instinct; he was interested. "Well, well, gold and silver," he continued, "to fill the Nell Gwynn and another! And what concern is that of mine? Let your words come plain off your tongue; I have no time for foolery."

"'Tis no foolery on my tongue, sir, as you may please to see."

He drew a paper from his pocket and shook it out as he came a little nearer, speaking all the while. His voice had gone low, running to a soft kind of chuckle, and his eyes were snapping with fire, which Iberville alone had seen was false. "I have come to make your excellency's fortune, if you will stand by with a good, stout ship and a handful of men to see me through."

The governor shrugged his shoulders. "Babble," he said, "all babble and bubble. But go on."

"Babble, your honour! Every word of it is worth a pint of guineas; and this is the pith of it. Far down West Indies way, some twenty-five, maybe, or thirty years ago, there was a plate ship wrecked upon a reef. I got it from a Spaniard, who had been sworn upon oath to keep it secret by priests who knew. The priests were killed and after a time the Spaniard died also, but not until he had given me the ways whereby I should get at what makes a man's heart rap in his weasand."

"Let me see your chart," said the governor.

A half-hour later he rose, went to the door, and sent a soldier for the two king's officers. As he did so, Bucklaw eyed the room doors, windows, fireplaces, with a grim, stealthy smile trailing across his face. Then suddenly the good creature was his old good self again--the comfortable shrewdness, the buoyant devil-may-care, the hook stroking the chin pensively. And the king's officers came in, and soon all four were busy with the map.