Chapter XXV. A Plot Overheard.
 

As the gypsy ended her warning she sprang forward, saying, "Follow me, for your life, sir." Harry did not hesitate. He heard several footsteps coming down the lane, and drawing his sword he followed his guide at a run. As he did so there was a shout among the men behind him and these set off in hot pursuit. Harry kept close to the girl, who turned down another lane even more narrow than that they were leaving. A few paces further she stopped, opened a door and entered. Harry followed her in and she closed the door behind her.

"Hush!" she whispered. "There are men here as bad as those without. Take off your shoes."

Harry did as directed. He was in pitch darkness. Taking him by the hand, the girl led him forward for some distance.

"There is a staircase here," she whispered.

Still holding his hand, she began to mount the stairs. As they passed each landing Harry heard the voices of men in the rooms on either side. At last they arrived at the top of the house. Here she opened a door, and led Harry into a room.

"Are you here, mother?" she asked.

There was no answer. The girl uttered an exclamation of thankfulness; then, after groping about, she found a tinder-box, and struck a light.

"You are safe here for the present. This is my room, where I live with my mother. At least," she sighed, "she calls herself my mother, and is the only one I have known."

"Is it possible," Harry asked in surprise, "that one like yourself can live in such an abode as this?"

"I am safe here," she answered. "There are five men of my tribe in the next room, and fierce and brutal as are the men of these courts, none of them would care to quarrel with the gypsies. But now I have got you here, how am I to get you away?"

"If the gypsies are so feared, I might go out with them," Harry said.

"Alas!" the girl answered, "they are as had as the others. And even if they were disposed to aid you for the kindness you have shown me, I doubt if they could do so. Assuredly they would not run the risk of thwarting the cutthroats here for the sake of saving you."

"Could you go and tell the watch?" Harry asked.

"The watch never comes here," the girl replied, shaking her head. "Were they to venture up these lanes it would be like entering a hive of bees. This is an Alsatia--a safe refuge for assassins and robbers."

"I have got myself into a nice mess," Harry said. "It seems to me I had better sally out and take my chance."

"Look," the girl said, going to the window and opening it.

Peering out, Harry saw below a number of men with swords and knives drawn. One or two had torches, and they were examining every doorway and court. Outside the window ran a parapet.

"They will search like hounds," the girl continued. "They must know that you have not gone far. If they come here you must take to the parapet, and go some distance along. Now, I must try and find some disguise for you."

At this moment the door opened, and an old woman entered. She uttered an exclamation of astonishment at seeing Harry, and turning angrily to the girl, spoke to her in the gypsy dialect. For two or three minutes the conversation continued in that language; then the old woman turned to Harry, and said in English:

"My daughter tells me that you have got into a broil on her behalf. There are few gentlemen who draw sword for a gypsy. I will do my best to aid you, but it will be difficult to get a gallant like yourself out of this place."

Her eye fell covetously upon the jewel in Harry's hat. He noticed the glance.

"Thanks, dame," he said; "I will gladly repay your services. Will you accept this token?" And removing the jewel from the hat, he offered it to her.

The girl uttered an angry exclamation as the old woman seized it, and after examining it by the candle light, placed it in a small iron coffer. Harry felt he had done wisely, for the old woman's face bore a much warmer expression of good-will than had before characterized it.

"You cannot leave now," she said. "I heard as I came along that a well-dressed gallant had been seen in the lanes, and every one's mouth is on water. They said that they thought he had some woman with him, but I did not dream it was Zita. You cannot leave to-night; to-morrow I will get you some clothes of my son's, and in these you should be able to escape without detection."

Very slowly the hours passed. The women at times talked together in Romaic, while Harry, who had possession of the only chair in the room, several times nodded off to sleep. In the morning there was a movement heard in the next room, and the old woman went in there.

"Surely that woman cannot be your mother?" Harry said to the girl.

"She is not," she answered. "I believe that I was stolen as a child; indeed, they have owned as much. But what can I do? I am one of them. What can a gypsy do? We are good for nothing but to sing and to steal."

"If I get free from this scrape," Harry said, "you may be sure that shall not be ungrateful, and if you long to leave this life, I can secure you a quiet home in England with my father."

The girl clasped her hands in delight.

"Oh, that would be too good!" she exclaimed. "Too good; but I fear it can never be."

She put her fingers to her lips, as the door again opened. The old woman entered, carrying some clothes.

"Here," she said; "they have gone out; put these on, Zita and I will go out and see if the coast is clear."

Harry, smiling to himself at the singularity of his having twice to disguise himself as a gypsy, rapidly changed his clothes. Presently the old woman returned.

"Quick," she exclaimed; "I hear that the news of the riot in the drinking-house has got about this morning, and it is known that an Englishman, something like the one seen in the lanes, took Zita's part, and there are suspicions that it was she who acted as his guide. They have been roughly questioning us. I told her to go on to avoid suspicion, while I ran back. You cannot stir out now, and I heard a talk of searching our rooms. Come, then, we may find a room unoccupied below; you must take refuge there for the present."

Harry still retained his sword, incongruous as it was with his attire, but he had determined to hide it under his clothes, so that, if detected, he might be able at least to sell his life. Taking it in his hand, he followed the old woman downstairs. She listened at each door, and continued downward until she reached the first floor.

"I can hear no one here," she said, listening at a door. "Go up a few steps; I will knock. If any one is there I can make some excuse."

She knocked, but there was no answer. Then she drew from her pocket a piece of bent wire, and inserted it in the keyhole.

"We gypsies can enter where we will," she said, beckoning Harry to enter as the door opened. "Wait quiet here till I come for you. The road will be clear then." So saying, she closed the door behind him, and again shot the bolt.

Harry felt extremely uncomfortable. Should the owner of the room return, he would be taken for a thief, although, as he thought, looking round the room, there was little enough to steal. It was a large room, with several truckle beds standing against the walls. In the center was a table, upon which were some mugs, horns, and empty bottles, with some dirty cards scattered about. The place smelled strongly of tobacco, and benches lying on the ground showed that the party of the night before had ended in a broil, further evidence to which was given by stains of blood on one of the beds, and by a rag saturated with blood, which lay beside it. At one side of the room was a door, giving communication into the next apartment. Scarcely had Harry entered when he heard voices there, and was surprised to find that the speakers were English.

"I tell you I'm sick of this," one of the speakers said. "I might be as well hanged at home as starved here."

"You might enlist," another voice said, in sneering tones. "Gallant soldiers are welcome in the Low Countries."

"You'd best keep your sneering tongue between your lips," the other said angrily. "If I don't care for fighting in the field, I can use a knife at a pinch, as you know full well. You will carry your gibes too far with me some day. No," he went on more calmly, after a pause, "I shall go back to England next week, after Marmaduke Harris and his gang have finished Oliver, The country will be turned so topsy-turvy that there will be no nice inquiry into bygones, and at any rate I can keep out of London."

"Yes, it will be wise to do that," the other said, since that little affair when the mercer and his wife in Cheap were found with their throats cut, and you--"

"Fire and furies! John Marlow, do you want three inches of steel in your ribs?"

"By no means!" the other answered. "You have become marvelously straightlaced all at once. As you know, I have been concerned in as many affairs as you have. Aha! I have had a merry time of it!"

"And may again," the other said. "Noll once dead, there will be good times for us again. It is a pity that you and I were too well known to have a hand in the job. Dost think there is any chance of a failure?"

"None," the other replied. "It is in good hands. Black Harry has bribed a cook wench, who will open the back door. They say he was to return to London this week, and if so Sunday is fixed for the affair. Five days yet, and say another week for the news to get here. In a fortnight we will be on our way to England. There, I am thirsty, and we left the bottle in the next room. We had a late night of it with the boys there."

During this conversation, to which Harry listened breathlessly, he had heard the tramp of feet going upstairs, and just as they finished speaking these had descended again. A moment later the door between the two rooms opened, and a man in the faded finery of a Royalist gentleman entered.

"Fires and furies!" he exclaimed. "Whom have we here? Marlow, here is an eavesdropper or a thief. We will slit his weasand. Aha!" he said, gazing fixedly at Harry, "you are Colonel Furness. I know you. You had me flogged the day before Worcester, for helping myself to an old woman's purse. It is my turn now."

Joined by his fellow ruffian he fell upon Harry, but they were no match for the Royalist colonel. After a few rapid thrusts and parries he ran his first assailant through the body and cut down the man called Marlow, with a sweeping blow which nearly cleft his head asunder.

Scarcely was the conflict ended when the door opened, and the old gypsy entered. She started at seeing the bodies of the two ruffians.

"I have been attacked," Harry said briefly, "and have defended myself."

"It is no business of mine," the old woman remarked. "When I have guided you out I will come back again. It's strange if there's not something worth picking up. Now, pull your hat well over your eyes and follow me."

Closing and locking the door again, she led the way downstairs.

"Do not walk so straight and stiff," she said. "Slouch your shoulders, and stoop your head. Now."

Harry sallied out into the lane, keeping by the side of his guide, with his head bent forward, and his eyes on the ground, walking, as far as he could, with a listless gait. The old woman continued to chatter to him in Romaic. There were many people about in the lane, but none paid any heed to them. Harry did not look up, but turned with his guide down several lanes, until they at length emerged on the quays. Saying she would call next day at his hotel for the reward he had promised her, she left him, and Harry, with his head full of the plot against Cromwell's life, crossed at once to the vessels by the quay.

"Is any ship sailing for the Thames to-day?" he asked.

"Yes," the sailor said. "The Mary Anne is just hoisting her anchor now, out there in midstream. You will be but just in time, for the anchor's under her foot."

Harry sprang into a boat and told the waterman to row to the ship. The latter stared in astonishment at the authoritative manner in which this gypsy addressed him, but Harry thrust his hand into his pocket, and showed him some silver.

"Quick, man," he said, "for she is moving. You will have double fare to put me on board."

The man pulled vigorously, and they were soon alongside the brig.

"Halloo! what now?" the captain said, looking over the side.

"I want a passage to England, and will pay you your own price."

"You haven't been killing any one, have you?" the captain asked. "I don't want to have trouble when I come back here, for carrying off malefactors."

"No, indeed," Harry said, as he lightly leaped on the deck. "I am Sir Harry Furness, though I may not look it, and am bound to England on urgent business. It is all right, my good fellow, and here is earnest money for my passage," and he placed two pieces of gold in the captain's hand.

"That will do," the captain said. "I will take you."

Harry went to the side.

"Here, my man, is your money, and a crown piece beside. Go to the Hotel des Etoiles and ask for the English officer who is there lying sick. Tell him Colonel Furness has been forced to leave for England at a moment's notice, but will be back by the first ship."

The man nodded, and rowed back to shore as the Mary Anne, with her sails hoisted, ran down the river.

Never did a voyage appear longer to an anxious passenger than did that of the Mary Anne to England. The winds were light and baffling, and at times the Mary Anne scarce moved through the water. Harry had no love for Cromwell. Upon the contrary, he regarded him as the deadliest enemy of the king, and moreover personally hated him for the cruel massacre of Drogheda. In battle he would have gladly slain him, but he was determined to save him from assassination. He felt the man to be a great Englishman, and knew that it was greatly due to his counsels that so little English blood had been shed upon the scaffold. Most of all, he thought that his assassination would injure the royal cause. The time was not yet ripe for a restoration. England had shown but lately that there existed no enthusiasm for the royal cause. At Cromwell's death the chief power would fall into the hands of fanatics more dangerous and more violent than he. His murder would be used as a weapon for a wholesale persecution of the Royalists throughout the land, and would create such a prejudice against them that the inevitable reaction in favor of royalty would be retarded for years. Full of these thoughts, Harry fretted and fumed over the slow progress of the Mary Anne. Late on Saturday night she entered the mouth of the Thames, and anchored until the tide turned. Before daybreak she was on her way, and bore up on the tide as far as Gravesend, when she had again to anchor. Harry obtained a boat and was rowed to shore. In his present appearance, he did not like to go to one of the principal inns for a horse, but entering a small one on the outskirts of the place, asked the landlord if he could procure him a horse.

"I am not what I seem," he said, in answer to his host's look of surprise. "But I have urgent need to get to London this evening. I will pay well for the horse, and will leave this ring with you as a guarantee for his safe return."

"I have not a horse myself," the landlord said, with more respect than he had at first shown; "but I might get one from my neighbor Harry Fletcher, the butcher. Are you willing to pay a guinea for his use? Fletcher will drive you himself."

Harry agreed to the sum, and a quarter of an hour later the man, with a light horse and cart, came to the door.

"You are a strange-looking carle," he said, "to be riding on a Sunday in haste; I scarce like being seen with thee."

"I have landed but an hour ago," Harry said, "and can buy no clothes to-day; but if you or mine host here, who is nearer my size, have a decent suit which you can sell me, I will pay you double the sum it cost."

The landlord at once agreed to the terms, and five minutes later Harry, clad in the sober garb of a decent tradesman, mounted the cart. The horse was not a fast one, and the roads were bad. It was nigh six o'clock before they reached London. Paying Fletcher the sum agreed upon, Harry walked rapidly westward. Cromwell was abiding in a house in Pall Mall. Upon Harry arriving there he was asked his business.

"The general is ill," the servant said, "and can see no one."

"I must see him," Harry urged. "It is a matter of the extremest importance."

"See him you cannot," the man repeated, "and it were waste of words to talk further on the matter. Dost think that, even were he well, the general, with all the affairs of the Commonwealth on his shoulders, has time to see every gossiping citizen who would have speech with him?"

Harry slipped a gold piece into the man's hand.

"It is useless," the man said. "The general is, as I truly told thee, ill."

Harry stood in despair, "Could you gain me speech with the general's wife?"

"Ay," the man said. "I might do that. What name shall say?"

"She would not know my name. Merely say that one wishes to speak to her on a matter nearly touching the safety of the general."

"Hadst thou said that at once," the man grumbled, "I might have admitted you before. There are many rumors of plots on the part of the malignants against the life of the general. I will take your message to Madam Cromwell, and she can deal with it as she will."

The man was absent for a few minutes. Then he returned with an officer.

"Can you tell me," the latter asked, "what you have to reveal?"

"No," Harry replied, "I must speak with the general himself."

"Beware," the officer said sternly, "that you trifle not. The general is sick, and has many things on his mind; 'twill be ill for you if you disturb him without cause."

"The cause is sufficient," Harry said. "I would see him in person."

Without a word the officer turned and led the way to a room upstairs, where Cromwell was sitting at a table, His wife was near him. A Bible lay open before him. Cromwell looked steadily at Harry.

"I hear that you have a matter of importance to tell me, young man, and one touching my safety. I know that there are many who thirst for my blood. But I am in the hands of the Lord, who has so far watched over His servant. If there be truth in what you have to tell you will be rewarded."

"I seek for no reward," Harry said. "I have gained knowledge of a plot against your life. Do you wish that I should speak in the presence of this officer?"

"Assuredly," the general said.

"Briefly, then, I have arrived from Hamburg but now to give you warning of a matter which came to my ears. I overheard, how it matters not, a conversation between two rascals who gave themselves out as Royalists, but who were indeed rather escaped criminals, to the effect that men had gone over thence to England with the intention of killing you. The plot was to come off to-night, Whether there be any change in the arrangements or no I cannot say, but the matter was, as they said, fixed for to-night. One of the women servants has been bribed to open the back entrance and to admit them there, More than this I know not."

"You speak, sir, as one beyond your station," Cromwell said; "and methinks I know both your face and figure, which are not easily forgotten when once seen."

"It matters not who I am," Harry replied, "so that the news I bring be true. I am no friend of yours, but a servant of King Charles. Though I would withstand you to the death in the field, I would not that a life like yours should be cut short by assassination; or that the royal cause should be sullied by such a deed, the dishonor of which, though planned and carried out by a small band of desperate partisans, would yet, in the eyes of the world, fall upon all who followed King Charles."

"You are bold, sir," Cromwell said. "But I wonder not, for I know you now. We have met, so far as I know, but once before. That was after Drogheda, where you defended the church, and where I spared your life at the intercession of my chaplain. I heard of you afterward as having, by a desperate enterprise, escaped, and afterward captured a ship with prisoners; and as having inflicted heavy loss and damage upon the soldiers of Parliament. You fought at Dunbar and Worcester, and, if I mistake not, incurred the enmity of the Earl of Argyll."

"I am Sir Harry Furness," Harry said calmly; "his majesty having been pleased to bestow upon me the honor of knighthood. Nor are you mistaken touching the other matters, since you yourself agreed at the lonely house on the moor to hand me over to Colonel Campbell, as his price for betraying the post I commanded. That matter, as you may remember, turned out otherwise than had been expected. I am not ashamed of my name, nor have I any fear of its being known to you. I have come over to do you service, and fear not harm at your hands when on such business."

"Why then did you not tell me at once?" Cromwell asked.

"Simply because I seek no favor at your hands. I would not that you should think that Harry Furness sought to reconcile himself with the Commons, by giving notice of a plot against your life. I am intending to start for Virginia and settle there, and would not stoop to sue for amnesty, though I should never see Furness Hall or England again."

Harry spoke in a tone of haughty frankness, which carried conviction with it.

"I doubt you not," Cromwell said. "You have been a bitter foe to the Commons, Colonel Furness, but it is not of men like you that we need be afraid. You meet us fairly in the field, and fight us loyally and honorably. It is the tricksters, the double-dealers, and the traitors, the men who profess to be on our side but who burrow in the dark against us, who trouble our peace. In this matter I am greatly beholden to you. Now that you have given us warning of the plot, it will be met if attempted. But should these men's hearts fail them, or for any other cause the attempt be laid aside, I shall be none the less indebted to you. I trust, Colonel Furness, that you will not go to the plantations. England needs honest men here. There is a great work yet to be done before happiness and quiet are restored; and we need all wise and good men in the counsels of the state. Be assured that you are free to return and dwell with the Cavalier, your father, at your pleasure. He drew aside from the strife when he saw that the cause he fought for was hopeless, and none have interfered with him. Charles will, methinks, fight no more in England. His cause is lost, and wise men will adapt themselves to the circumstances. Let me know where you lodge to-night. You will hear further from me to-morrow."