Yule Logs/The Badge of the Fourth Foot
THE BADGE OF THE FOURTH FOOT
By ROBERT LEIGHTON
What a night! What a wild, wild night!"
Old Donald Leslie lifted his grizzled head, closed his book on his gnarled forefinger, and listened to the low deep soughing of the wind. As he spoke, a gust of smoke blew out into the room from the wide throat of the chimney; the flames of the burning logs on the open hearth leapt and crackled anew; the lights of the hanging cruse lamps flickered, and the grimy arras hangings over the doors and windows swung heavily to and fro and swelled out like the sails of a ship.
"Ay; it's from the north," muttered Elspeth Macdonald, as she crossed to one of the deep embayed windows and drew aside the curtain to peer out into the night. "It will be bringing snow with it. The clouds were banked up like great mountains in the north when I looked out in the forenoon, and the shepherd was telling me that he saw a white bonnet on Ben Bhuidhe as he came west over Culloden braes yestreen."
"Listen!" cried young Colin Leslie, releasing the cat from his knee and rising to his feet. "Did you not hear something, grandfather?"
"Well did I hear something," returned the old man. "I've heard it these two hours past. It's the wind howling in the vent.""Nay, but it wasna the wind," pursued the boy. "It was——"
"Just hold your tongue, laddie, and let me get reading my book," interrupted the grandfather petulantly. "You're aye putting in your word. A body can do no reading with such chatter for ever dinging in his ears."
"There it is again!" cried Colin, not heeding the old man's complaint. "It was some one hammering at the castle door."
"Hoots, bairn. Who would be out travelling and knocking at folk's doors on a night like this?"
Colin approached the hearth and leaned his arm against the cheek of the chimney, staring into the glowing fire.
"It was some one on horseback," said he; "I heard the horse's hoofs on the stones just before you said 'What a night it is!'"
Sir Donald Leslie continued reading under the dim light of the lamp that hung above his head. Presently Elspeth Macdonald left the room on tiptoe, closing the door behind her. Colin applied himself to casting a new log upon the fire. Regardless of his grandfather, he began to whistle the lightsome air of a certain Jacobite song. Soon his whistling changed into the song itself and he chanted, half under his breath, the words—
"Oh, Charlie is my darling,
Suddenly a fluttering book flew past his curly head.
"How dare you? How dare you sing that accursed Jacobite song in my hearing?" cried his grandfather, red with rage. "Have I not told you a hundred times that I'll have none of your rebel rantings in my house?"
"I meant no harm, grandfather," said Colin, picking up the book and placing it on the corner of the table near the old man's elbow, "I was not thinking of the meaning of the words."
"May-be not, may-be not," returned Sir Donald, as he idly took up his book. Then, calming himself, he added more softly, shaking his head the while: "Colin, you are just the very reflection of my brother Neil. My father
"Suddenly a fluttering book flew past his curly head."
had exactly the same trouble with him in the Forty-Five that I have with you in these more peaceful days. You try to persuade me that you have no real sympathy with the wild adventurer you were now singing about. But I'll be bound that if there were another rising (which Heaven forfend!) you'd on with the kilt and be off with another Stuart, just as Neil Leslie went off with the young Pretender—luckless loon that he was. But I'll not have it, look you. I'll have none of your Jacobite thoughts here; no, not even so much as the whistling of their inflammatory tunes!"
Colin raised his eyes and glanced furtively at the old claymore that was suspended over the door, crossed by a rusty Lochaber axe. One might have seen by the sudden gleam in his blue eyes that the lad had some lingering sympathy with the romantic adventurer of whose lost cause his grandfather had spoken so contemptuously.
"One rebel in the family has been quite enough, and more than enough," went on Sir Donald. "But for Neil Leslie we might now be living in comfort and luxury instead of in poverty. We now feed upon porridge and oaten bannocks instead of good wholesome beef and venison; we drink weak milk instead of wine. Our dwelling is a poor broken-down ruin instead of, as it once was, a lordly castle fit for a king. Look at our lands; they are wide, but they bear no harvest, for we cannot afford to cultivate them. Our stables are empty; our flocks have been reduced to a few skinny sheep that find no food upon the barren ground. Even the grouse and the plovers have deserted us. And it is all the work of Neil Leslie. My very blood simmers when I think of him, the rebel rascal! the scoundrel! the thief!"
"Thief?" echoed Colin quickly. "Thief, grandfather?"
"Ay, thief," growled the old man in an angrier tone. "He robbed his own father—my father. All the hard-earned and hard-saved money that my father had put aside for his descendants—for me as his eldest son, and for you in your turn, although that was long, long before you were born—was stolen by Neil Leslie, and by him appropriated to the accursed cause of the man whom he called his prince. Prince? A prince of rascals, a prince of gallows-birds; that is what I call the frog-eating reprobate that presumed to lay claim to the British throne. What did he do—this Charles Edward Stuart? He filled the silly heads of our men and women with his romantic tomfoolery; he turned all Scotland topsy-turvy and left it a miserable wreck of its former and better self——Don't look like that at me, Colin. I'm telling you nothing but the simple truth. And when you are a little older and get the hayseed out of your hair, you will know the wisdom of being loyal to your rightful king. There, I've lost my place in the book, now. Let me see; what page was I at?"
The door opened while the old man peevishly turned over the pages, and Elspeth Macdonald entered. There was an expression of anxious concern in her wrinkled face. She approached the master of Castle Leslie and mysteriously whispered into his ear.
Sir Donald gripped the wooden arm of his highbacked chair.
"Ossington?" he said questioningly, repeating the name that the housekeeper had announced. "Colonel Ossington? I know no such name. Who can the man be, think you, Elspeth?"
Elspeth shook her head.
"That's mair than I can tell," said she. "He just asked for the master as he stamped his snowy boots on the step. Then he took off his cloak and handed it to Geordie, as bold as you please, and bade me give you his name Colonel Ossington."
"Has he left his horse standing there?" questioned Sir Donald.
Elspeth crossed her hands in front of her, and holding up her head in high dignity, answered—
"No. The beast has been taken round to the stables."
"H'm," muttered Sir Donald. "He evidently intends to stay the night, then. Well, it matters little who he may be. We couldna send a body away from the very door on a night of storm like this, even if he were but a mere gaberlunzie. Let him come ben here. And see that some supper is sent in. Wait," he added, as Elspeth was moving away; "see that Andrew gets some food for the horse. There should be a handful of oats left in the corners of the bags up in the old loft; and if not, he'll may-be find some dry hay in the byre."
"Toots!" objected Elspeth, as she swept towards the door, "there's no need to fash yourself about the horse. Andrew will see to the beast. Trust him to that."
Young Colin Leslie stood before the fire with his face fronting to the room. His grandfather's knotted fingers nervously turned the faded brown leaves of his book, while the wind groaned in the chimney and the fitful flames of the fire cast strange moving shadows about the gloomy room.
The man who presently entered crossed the oaken floor with a somewhat halting gait. His spurs jangled at each step. His clean-shaven face was thin and pinched, but ruddy in contrast with his silvery hair. As he approached into the light of the fire, Colin noticed that his active grey eyes were conspicuously clear and bright beneath his furrowed brow. He wore a snuff-coloured riding-coat, with breeches of the same colour, and long military boots. A diamond glistened amid the pure whiteness of his lace-edged cravat.
Sir Donald Leslie rose from his chair and advanced a step to meet him. The two men bowed to each other as strangers.
"You are welcome, sir," said Sir Donald, standing upright with his right hand on the tall back of his chair. "Pray take this seat near the fire. The night is cold, and it may be you have travelled far."
The soldier bent his head courteously.
"Not farther than Inverness," was his response. He spoke in a distinctly English tone of voice, which Sir Donald at once detected.
"You are from the South?" he questioned. And then, before before the stranger had time to answer, he added, "Colonel Ottington, I think my housekeeper told me, is your name?"
"Ossington," corrected the stranger, seating himself and holding his long, delicate hands in front of the fire. "Colonel Ossington, late of the King's 17th Light Dragoons. I am newly returned from Canada." He glanced at his host as he spoke, and after a slight pause continued, wrinkling his face into a half smile, "You do not appear to know me, sir? Am I not addressing Mr. Alan Leslie—Alan Leslie, once of the 20th Foot?"
There was a moment or two of silence, broken only by the deep-throated growling of the wind in the chimney-vent. Colin Leslie, who had retired to a shadowed corner of the ingle-nook, looked at his grandfather, wondering at his hesitation.
"My name is Donald Leslie," came at last the gloomy reply. "I am a brother of Alan Leslie, and the eldest son of Sir John Leslie, who died fifty years ago—fifty years almost to the very day."
Colonel Ossington meditatively nodded his head. "That would be in the year of Culloden, I think," said he. "He was for the young——" He checked himself.
"No," broke in Sir Donald vehemently. "He was certainly not for the young Pretender."
The colonel raised his eyebrows in apparent surprise, dropped his open hands upon his knees, and slowly rose to his feet.
"I had almost expected to hear you say the young Chevalier," he said, with a fuller frankness than he had hitherto shown. "I had understood that your brother Alan was the only member of your family who was not heart and soul for the Stuarts."
"On the contrary," corrected Sir Donald, "I and my brother Alan and our father were always staunch for King George. Ah," he added, seeing the door open, "here is some supper. I am afraid it will prove a poor meal; but pray make yourself free with such as there is. Pardon me if I leave you for a little while. My grandson Colin, here, will entertain you in the meantime." He poured a few drops of whisky into a glass, and dealt similarly but more generously with a glass which he passed to his guest. "To the King!" he said, moistening his lips.
"To the King!" responded Colonel Ossington, bowing politely to Sir Donald as he left the room.
The supper which had been set before the stranger was, as his host had expressed it, but a poor meal; but Colonel Ossington partook of it with as much enjoyment as if it had been a banquet. Presently Colin Leslie emerged from his corner by the ingle and slowly approached the table, standing opposite to the colonel as he ate. The boy's fingers played idly with the ragged fringe of the table-cloth; but now and again he stole a furtive glance at the silver-haired officer at the other side. Once or twice he attempted to speak, but his shyness overcame him. It was not often that he encountered a stranger such as the man before him. At last he mustered courage enough to say—
"Are you a soldier—a real soldier?"
The colonel smiled at him. "Yes," said he, "I am a soldier. Is that something strange to you?"
"We don't see many soldiers in these parts," said the boy. "There are some at Inverness, of course, and at Fort George, but I've never been to either of those places. Once when I went to Edinburgh with my father, I saw some soldiers at the Castle. But I never spoke to one before."
"Is your father at home—here in Castle Leslie?" asked Colonel Ossington.
"No," answered Colin; "he's dead. So is my mother. Grandfather and I are quite alone in the world." He hesitated, almost ashamed of having said so much. Presently he looked up once more and added, "Where is your red coat and your sword? I thought soldiers always wore red coats and swords."
"Mine are at home in England," explained the soldier. "I don't wear them now. I have not worn them at all since I came back from America. I am too old."
Colin reflected for some moments, leaning his elbows on the table and his chin in his supporting hands.
"Did you ever kill a man?" he asked abruptly.
"Yes; many men. That is what soldiers are meant to do. But one doesn't like to think of them as men. Somehow it seems different when one calls them simply the enemy."
"Then you've been in a real battle?"
The soldier nodded.
"That must have been very exciting," remarked Colin, with boyish enthusiasm. "I should like to be in a real battle—that is, if it were against Frenchmen, or Spaniards, or blackamoors, or people of that sort. I don't think I'd like it so much if they were Britons."
"I suppose not," agreed Colonel Ossington, with a sigh. "Somehow it does seem to make a difference."
"Once," went on Colin, growing more communicative now that he had discovered a soldier to be very little different in human nature from any other man—"once, there was a battle near here—near this castle, I mean—over on Culloden Moor, where our sheep pastures are. And last spring, when Peter Reid of the Mains of Kilravock was ploughing, he turned up a rusty old claymore. He gave it to me, and I polished it. There it is, hanging up with that Lochaber axe upon the wall.
"Turned up a rusty old claymore."
Colonel Ossington moved his chair to look round at the old sword. His glance travelled to other parts of the dimly lighted room, surveying the few family portraits in their tarnished frames, the dusty antlered heads of stags, the old Highland targets, crossbows, and battle-axes that decorated the dark oak panels of the walls.
"There used to be a rack of muskets in that farther corner," he remarked. "And where is the portrait of the beautiful Lady Leslie—Bonnie Belinda, they called her—that used to hang up there above that carved settle?"
"Oh, that has been put away," explained Colin, "because—because Lady Belinda was a Jacobite, you know. But how did you know that the picture and the guns and things were ever there? You have never been in this room before, have you?"
The colonel raised his glass to his lips. "Yes," he said.
"When?" demanded Colin.
"Oh, when I was a youth, a little older than you are now. It must be fifty years ago."
At this moment Sir Donald Leslie re-entered the room.
"Grandfather!" cried Colin, "Colonel Ossington has been here before! He was here fifty years ago."
Sir Donald turned sharply to his guest.
"Is this true?" he asked.
"Quite true," responded the old campaigner. "I was here in the year 1746. You, I think, were at that time abroad."
"Yes," acquiesced Sir Donald. "I was in Leyden. I am sorry you did not inform me at once that this was not your first visit. I should have given you a warmer welcome if I had known. As it is, I have treated you as a stranger, and have not even offered you my hand."
"It is hardly too late to repair the omission," said Colonel Ossington, and he thrust forth his hand, which his host grasped.
"Ossington?" muttered Sir Donald, trying to recall the name. "Ossington? Dear me, I'm afraid I must seem very stupid. But for the life of me I cannot remember to have heard of you. If I may be so inquisitive, what was the occasion of your former visit, colonel?"
"I will tell you," returned the soldier frankly. " Indeed, my present appearance here is wholly on account of what occurred at that long distant time." He put his hand to his breast pocket. "May I smoke?" he asked.
"Certainly," said Sir Donald. "I am afraid, however, that I cannot offer you any tobacco. We can ill afford such a luxury in these hard times."
"Thank you. I have some very fine American tobacco with me," rejoined the colonel. "Ah, I forgot," he added. "I find I have left it in my saddle-bag."
"Colin will fetch it," urged Sir Donald, anticipating the promised pleasure of renewing a habit which economy alone had compelled him to abandon.
"Oh, don't trouble," said his guest, "I will go myself. I think I remember where the stable is situated. Although perhaps the lad might, after all, accompany me."
Colin was already at the door, prepared for the guest. He conducted the colonel out into the hall, where they got their hats and a lantern, and then through the house and out by one of the back doors, and into the spacious, wind-swept garden, along by a high blank wall and across to the stable. By the aid of Colin's lamp, the colonel soon found his tobacco and, giving a caressing pat to his horse's flanks, he followed the boy back into the garden.
A wild gust of wind met them as they came out from the stable door, extinguishing their light. The snow had ceased to fall, and the sky was clear, saving only for a few fleecy white clouds that drifted southward across the moon. The ruined and ivy-covered walls of the older parts of the castle stood out black against the steel-blue brightness of the sky. An owl flew with silent wings from out the ruins and disappeared among the tall bare trees that creaked and groaned in the wind at the rear of the keep.
Colin walked in advance over the crisp white snow. Suddenly he drew back with a half-smothered cry, gripped his companion's arm, and pointed with agitated finger into the dark shadows of the ruined walls.
"Look!" he ejaculated, trembling in every limb. "Do you see it? Do you see it? See! there it goes—there, in at the old postern gate! Come! come quickly back to the house. I'm afraid!"
Colonel Ossington held the lad's arm, supporting him. "Afraid of what, boy?" he demanded. "There is nothing."
"Did you not see it?" gasped Colin, in a mysterious, scarcely audible whisper. "It went in at the postern, there."
"I saw nothing to alarm you to this degree, my boy," returned the soldier. "What was it? Tell me what it was!"
Colin's fingers crept down the colonel's right arm until they grasped his hand. The lad had implored his companion to return with him to the house, but he himself now stood still as if rooted to the spot.
"What was it?" repeated Colonel Ossington.
Colin answered in the same low, mysterious whisper. "It was the ghost—the ghost of Neil Leslie. It is often seen here. Elspeth has seen it. So has grandfather. I have seen it before, too; but never so plainly as now. It glided along there by the wall, with its plaid wrapped round it. I saw the yellow stone glistening in the hilt of its dirk. Its sword flashed in the moonlight. When it got to the gate it stopped a moment and put out its hand, holding something—something that looked like a little bag. It turned its face this way and then disappeared."
"Come," said the colonel, putting his arm about the lad and drawing him onward towards the house. "Your imagination has been playing you some trick. It was the moonlight and the moving bushes, perhaps. You will forget all about it when we get indoors."
As they passed by the postern gate, Colin craned round and peered within. Seeing nothing but black darkness, he heaved a deep sigh of relief and walked boldly on, saying nothing until he had closed and barred the door behind him. Then, touching Colonel Ossington's arm, he said calmly—
"Please say nothing to grandfather about Neil's ghost, Colonel Ossington. It would only disturb him."
Sir Donald Leslie was engaged in preparing a bowl of hot whisky toddy, when his grandson and his guest rejoined him. He did not observe Colin's blanched face and wild, staring eyes. The boy strode to the fireplace and flung himself into his favourite seat in the corner, staring into the glowing red mass upon the hearth.
When the two men had filled and lighted their pipes, and were comfortably seated before the fire, each with a steaming glass of toddy within reach of him, Colonel Ossington abruptly resumed the conversation at the point where it had been broken off some fifteen minutes earlier.
"My present appearance here," he said, crossing his legs, "is connected with certain mysterious events which occurred at the time of my first visit to Castle Leslie on the fifteenth day of April 1746—that is to say, on the eve of the battle of Culloden." He paused an instant as if to arrange his thoughts. Then, leaning forward and fixing his keen grey eyes upon his host, he said in a tone of sharp inquiry: "Will you tell me what became of your brother, Neil Leslie?"
Sir Donald received the question with a lowering of the brows.
"Ah," said he, as he pressed his finger into the bowl of his tobacco-pipe, "I had guessed that it was of him you came to speak. I had even gone so far as to expect that you were about to pester me by telling me you had met him out there in America. I don't want to know anything concerning him, Colonel Ossington. He disgraced and ruined his family, and whether he be dead, as I hope, or alive, as I sometimes fear, he is no more to me than the most utter stranger."
"If I had met him in America," observed Colonel Ossington, "I should have no need to ask you what had become of him. I know nothing of him—nothing of what happened to him subsequent to the evening before Culloden fight."
"I assume that you were yourself in that fight," remarked Sir Donald.
"Yes," returned the colonel," I was then a young ensign. I served under Major James Wolfe in repelling the first attack of the Highlanders."
"Ah," mused Sir Donald; "then you would not come into conflict with Neil Leslie. He, I believe, remained studiously in the rear."
"Pardon me," corrected the colonel, "he was not on the field."
A blank yet somewhat haughty stare was the response to this unexpected contradiction. Sir Donald was evidently perplexed.
"I do not go so far as to declare that he was actually in the fight," said he. "But that he was somewhere on the fringe of the battle I am well assured. After the fight he fled with the defeated Highlanders, first to the Western Islands, and afterwards to France. Such at least is what my father believed concerning him—not that he went out of his way to make inquiries. You may be sure that he was in nowise anxious for the graceless scoundrel's safety. Indeed, if the truth must needs be told, Sir John was rejoiced to be rid of Neil at any cost."
"Rejoiced to be rid of him?" echoed the colonel, in surprise. "I do not understand. Neil Leslie was his father's especial favourite. And very naturally so, as it seems to me, since they both were Jacobites."
Sir Donald laid his pipe upon the table.
"Jacobites?" he repeated, in a tone half of surprise and half of disbelief. "Who were Jacobites?"
"Why, Sir John Leslie and his son Neil."
"No, no," returned Sir Donald emphatically. "You mistake the facts, colonel; you are dreaming. My brother Neil was a Jacobite, curse him. But my father, I thank Heaven, was as firmly for the House of Hanover as you or I."
"If either of us is dreaming," declared the soldier, "I am afraid it is yourself, Sir Donald. Surely you do not pretend that you never knew your father to be a bitter enemy of King George! Surely you, his own son, cannot be ignorant of the fact that for month—ay, for years—before Culloden, Sir John Leslie was secretly one of the most active friends and personal supporters of the young Pretender?"
Sir Donald had risen to his feet, and now he strode thoughtfully to the end of the room and back.
"If you are speaking the truth, I have been ignorant indeed," he said, with a frown. He turned and continued moodily to pace the room. To and fro he strode with his twitching hands linked together behind his back. Colonel Ossington quietly puffed at his pipe, while young Colin Leslie, in his seat at the ingle, leaned forward staring at the two men in fixed attention. No word was spoken for many minutes, and all was silent saving only for the wild, boisterous rumbling of the wind in the chimney, and the regular shuffling tramp of Sir Donald Leslie's slippered feet upon the bare oak floor. Presently this latter sound ceased, and Sir Donald stood still, ruminating.
"I cannot believe it," he said at length, confronting Colonel Ossington. "On what grounds do you base your conviction?"
"On the surest of all grounds," returned the soldier, "his own admission, and also my certain knowledge that when Charles Edward Stuart and his army of Highlanders were encamped on the moor near here, Sir John Leslie supplied them not only with the food which they so sorely needed, but also with money, with arms, and with ammunition."
A fierce light leapt into the old man's eyes.
"It is false!" he cried, in a quivering voice; "it is false!" He stamped his foot. "I do not doubt that you yourself believe what you are saying. Some knave or liar must have deceived you. But, all the same, it is not true. My father was as fervent a Hanoverian as I was and still am. It was Neil alone who was the skulking Jacobite. Ay, and to him I owe it that I am now so poor that I cannot even offer a chance visitor the hospitality that is his due. Had my father been in sound health at the time of the Rebellion, he would have joined the King's troops and fought as boldly as did my dear brother Alan, who fell fighting bravely and loyally for King George on Culloden Moor."
"In that last particular you are again strangely in error," interrupted Colonel Ossington. "Alan Leslie took no part whatsoever in the battle of Culloden. I, who was his comrade and friend, can testify also that he did not die a soldier's death—at least not upon the field."
"What!" cried the astonished Sir Donald. "Are you certain of this?"
"I am," reiterated the colonel, "absolutely certain."
"Then where in Heaven's name was he?"
"Here—in this house," returned Ossington, knocking the ash out of his pipe and slowly reopening his tobacco-bag. "It was of him more particularly that I came here to speak with you. I wanted to learn something of his fate, whatever it may have been. But it seems you know as little of it as I do myself. We were companions in arms, he and I. It was while I was stationed in Edinburgh that he joined Major James Wolfe's battalion of the Fourth Foot. I was then a young ensign. Alan and I were quartered together, and we soon became fast friends. We sat at the same mess-table, we shared the same bottle of wine, we smoked the same pipe. When it was a question of fighting, as at Prestonpans, we fought side by side."
Sir Donald filled his guest's glass anew. Colin Leslie continued silently to listen, believing that the old soldier was now coming to something more definite.
"In the spring of '46, you remember," went on the colonel, "the Duke of Cumberland's forces marched northward to Aberdeen, in search of the rebels. From Aberdeen we advanced to the town of Nairn, and while there we heard that the Pretender was concentrating his army of Highlanders at a spot not many miles away from our encampment. Alan Leslie and I were sent out to reconnoitre. We made our way westward and discovered the enemy on Culloden Moor. Believing that we might learn something further as to their intentions, Alan induced me to accompany him to Castle Leslie, in the hope of hearing news from the lad's father, who was supposed, although erroneously, to be friendly to the King. We arrived here at dusk and were admitted into this same room."
The colonel's eyes wandered about the apartment as if in the endeavour to picture it as it had been at that earlier time.
"For some two hours," he continued, "we were left here alone. During that interval of waiting, Alan told me the romantic story of Bonnie Belinda, the story being suggested by her portrait, which hung over yonder above the settle."
Sir Donald nodded and glanced across at the vacant place on the panelled wall.
"But at last," went on the speaker, "Sir John Leslie entered, with his plaid about his shoulders, as if he had newly returned from a journey. He regarded his soldier son with stony indifference."
"'Well?' he demanded; 'what do you want here?'
"'I have come, sir,' stammered Alan, surprised at this cold welcome. 'I have come—'
"His father bent forward with his hand resting on the table at his side, and almost touching Alan's regimental cap with its bright brass badge.
"'You have come as a spy!' he cried bitterly, following up the accusation with a volley of virulent taunts. 'You ingrate!' he cried; 'you weak-kneed renegade! Where is your patriotism? How dare you come here, wearing the uniform of the hateful foreign usurper whom you serve?'"
"He said that?" questioned Sir Donald agitatedly. "He—my father—said that?"
Colonel Ossington took up the fire-tongs and caught at a fragment of burning wood with which to light his pipe.
"Those were his own words," said he; "and they were not less surprising to me than they were to Alan Leslie. I do not exactly remember what Alan said in retaliation, but he taunted his father with being a Jacobite, and, as he said, 'the follower of an upstart Pretender'; and at these words Sir John drew himself proudly together and stood at his full height, which I am sure must have been a good six feet. 'I will not have His Royal Highness so named in my presence,' he declared with a frown, and pointing to the door in all the dignity of his old age, he added: 'You are no son of mine, and I do not wish ever to see you again.'
"But even as he spoke, the door was opened from without, and a tall, singularly noble-looking young man entered with the majestic stride of a monarch. He was followed by a yet younger man. At sight of our red coats both new-comers started back in amazement. Before either could speak, however, Sir John had hurried the elder of them out of the room. The younger man, whom I rightly guessed to be Neil Leslie, stepped back and, looking into Alan's face, smiled in recognition, and held out his hand. Alan refused to accept this; offer of friendship."
"Ay, and quite right," interposed Sir Donald.
Colonel Ossington did not heed the interruption, but proceeded with his narrative.
"As the two brothers stood there, facing each other," he said, "I thought them the two handsomest youths I had ever beheld. Alan, with his smart military bearing, his finely featured face and his glistening dark eyes; Neil, somewhat taller, although younger, with fairer hair and more lithe figure, dressed in the picturesque Highland costume, with his dark tartan kilt and his long flowing plaid, that was caught at the shoulder by a large silver brooch, set with a sparkling yellow stone."
On hearing this description of his great-uncle, young Colin Leslie moved from his seat at the fire to a vacant chair opposite to Colonel Ossington. It was evident that Neil was in his eyes a hero.
"Alan, I say, refused to accept his brother's proffered friendship. 'Who was the young man that came to the door with you just now?' he demanded. And Neil answered proudly, as he turned to leave the room: 'It was the prince whom I have the honour to serve—Prince Charles Edward Stuart.'"
"And he was once here—here in this very room?" murmured Colin, with reverent enthusiasm. In his boyish imagination the room had been sanctified by the presence of the romantic adventurer.
"Alan refused to accept this offer of friendship."
"When Neil had gone out of the room," said the old campaigner, "Alan gave a mocking laugh. 'What do you think of them, Jack?' said he. 'It seems to me we've dropped into a hornet's nest. It will be war to the knife with my father and me after this. Which reminds me,' he added, crossing the room to the wall opposite the window there, 'this pretty dirk is mine. I may as well take possession of it.' And he took down a long-bladed, jewel-hafted dagger that was hung there under the picture of Bonnie Belinda. 'Wait outside for me, Jack,' said he; 'wait at the stable door. There's something else I want to do before we go back to Nairn.' So I went out and waited at the stable. I waited for fully an hour. When Alan joined me at last, he was a different man. He was strangely agitated almost mad with passion and fierce vindictive rage against his father.
"'Look here, Jack,' said he, 'you'd better ride back to Nairn at once—without me. I shall come on later—perhaps not until to-morrow morning. Ride back as quickly as you can, and see the Duke of Cumberland. If you can't see him, go to Major Wolfe. Tell him—tell either of them—that the rebel army is only some four thousand strong, but that the Pretender has determined to attack the King's troops to-morrow. I have just heard this by accident. The three of them—Charles Stuart, my father, and that young scamp Neil—have been closeted together. But I overheard them talking and unfolding their plans. There was only a thin curtain between us, and I heard every word. I heard my father saying that he had a store of arms and ammunition here in the castle for the use of the Highlanders. Two hundred muskets and as many swords, as well as ten thousand pounds in gold. These he offered to Stuart, bidding him send for them at eleven o'clock to-night. The arms and the money are to be delivered to the messengers by my brother Neil at the postern gate in the castle garden. They will be delivered, Jack, if—if I don't prevent it, as I mean to do.'"
Colonel Ossington paused in his narrative. His gaze was fixed upon the earnestly attentive eyes and the white face of Colin Leslie. The boy seemed mentally to be associating this fact of the delivery of arms at the postern gate with the recently seen apparition of Neil Leslie. As for Sir Donald, he had now ceased to doubt Colonel Ossington's affirmations, and was as deeply interested in the narrative as was his grandson, although the sympathies of the two were directly at variance.
"Ten thousand pounds in gold!" ejaculated Sir Donald in astonishment. "Where on earth did it all come from?"
"I do not know," returned Ossington. "Probably it represented the contributions of the wealthy Jacobites of the immediate neighbourhood."
"And did the Highlanders get those guns and things in time to use them in the next day's battle?" Colin ventured to ask. He breathed a sigh of disappointment when Colonel Ossington answered, with more conviction than the mere words implied—
"I believe not. Alan Leslie remained behind with the purpose of frustrating their delivery."
"Ay, and did frustrate it, I'll be bound," interposed the grandfather. "Alan was brave, he was strong and determined. He would stick at nothing! When did you next see him, colonel?"
"I never saw him again," replied Ossington. "Since that night when I left him his fate has been to me a complete mystery. On the next day, at Nairn, when the muster-roll was called, he was absent. We advanced to Culloden, and the battle was fought—if battle it may be called which was a mere rout. But Alan Leslie was nowhere on the field. When the Highlanders had retreated, vanquished, and the Duke of Cumberland was pursuing his too terrible vengeance upon the innocent and the guilty alike, I searched among the wounded and the dead for my missing comrade, but nowhere could I find him. Afterwards, I came here. Your castle had been attacked and partly demolished by Hawley's dragoons. Sir John Leslie, I heard, had gone the night before with Charles Stuart to the house of Lord Lovat, to be present at a council of war. He afterwards escaped with the fugitives probably in company with his son Neil.
"Ay!" added Sir Donald; "and Neil, I'll be bound, did not neglect to carry off the gold with him, and use it for his own selfish purposes; for the Pretender never got the money. I'm thankful for that at least. That he should have it were worse even than that Neil should squander it." The old man began again to stride to and fro across the floor. "Neil was a villain!" he cried; "an ingrain villain and scoundrel. He ought to have been hanged with the rest of them! I could almost be content at the loss of the family fortunes if I might only know that the rascal had died an outlaw's death on the gallows. It was doubtless he who prevented Alan from getting back to his regiment that night."
Colonel Ossington meditated a few moments in silence.
"Yes," he said at length, "no doubt you are right. But in what way did he prevent him, Sir Donald? That is what I want most particularly to know."
"To my mind there is but one answer to that question," returned Sir Donald decisively. "My brother Alan was not in the battle, you say. If he had been alive I am certain he would not have shirked his duty. But I believe he was not alive, colonel; I believe that he was murdered, and murdered by his own brother, Neil Leslie. That also would tally with the fact that since that fatal night, Neil has never dared to show himself at his home."
Colin Leslie here ventured to break in with a remark.
"You have no right to say such a thing, grandfather," he said emphatically. "Why should Neil ever think of murdering Alan? He had nothing to fear from him."
"You know nothing about the matter, boy," growled Sir Donald. "It is no business of an ignorant lad to discuss such a thing as this with his elders."
But Colonel Ossington did not so despise the boy's opinions.
"By the way, Master Colin," said he, "your ghost of this evening should have some bearing on this mystery. Did you not say that the apparition was dressed in the Highland kilt?"
"Ghost!" echoed Sir Donald in astonishment. "What ghost? What apparition?"
"The ghost that I saw to-night when I went out with Colonel Ossington to the stables," returned Colin; "the ghost of Neil Leslie. It went in at the postern gate; the gate where the arms and the money were to have been delivered."
"Ah!" the old man drew his breath in sharply, "I have heard of that ghost before. Old Elspeth has seen it. Once, also," he hesitated, listening to the angry blast of the wind; "once, also, on a wild, blustering night just such as this, I saw it myself. That was many years ago; but, I remember, it was at that same place—near the postern gate. Probably the rascal's guilty conscience troubles him, even in his grave—if, indeed, he be in his grave."
There was a long pause, during which the wind howled even more piteously than before. Colonel Ossington emptied his glass and set it down with deliberate slowness upon the table at his elbow.
"I am persuaded that there was some foul play on that night," said he, in a low, clear voice. "But of course there can now be no proof. How could there be, after all these years?" He leaned forward with his open hands clasping his knees, and with his eyes fixed upon the fire. Then he went on, as if speaking to himself : "Some years ago, just after the taking of Quebec, I chanced to make the acquaintance of an aged Highlander, who had a bullet in his chest and was dying in the hospital. I learned that the man's name was David Duncan. We got talking of the Jacobite rebellion, and I discovered that he had been present at Culloden. Further conversation elicited the information that this same old Highlander had been one of the Pretender's messengers sent to Castle Leslie to convey the arms and money to the rebel encampment. Duncan and his companions waited that night near the postern gate. They were at their post at eleven. They waited until three o'clock. But no one ever came to them and the arms were never delivered. While they waited, Duncan heard a strange, weird cry, like a cry for help. Whence it came he could not tell; neither did he know whether it was the cry of a man or of a woman. Human it certainly was. It seemed, he said, to come out of the ground at his feet. It was then midnight."
The old clock in the outer hall struck eleven. Sir Donald Leslie signed to Colin, indicating that it was high time the boy was in bed. Colin bade the two men goodnight, but still lingered in the room for a few moments, hoping to hear more of this family mystery.
"I infer from what you have said," remarked Colonel Ossington, addressing his host, "that you have no knowledge of the secret place in which the military stores and the gold of which we have been speaking were hidden?"
"There is no such secret place in all the castle," returned Sir Donald. "Of that I am quite certain. Whether the rebels received the stores or not, the things vere assuredly removed long before I returned to Scotland."
These were the last arguments that Colin Leslie heard before he retired to bed. As he lay wakeful on his pillow, he reflected upon the story that had been revealed to him. The men had come to the conclusion that Neil Leslie, the Jacobite, had murdered his own brother. "Could this really be so?" thought Colin. The boy wondered where and in what exact circumstances the tragedy had taken place. He wondered in which room the guns and swords and all those thousands of golden guineas had been hidden. Colonel Ossington had suggested a secret chamber as the probable receptacle; but Colin knew every nook and cranny about the building, and he was forced to acknowledge to himself that his grandfather's words were true when he said, "There is no such secret place in all the castle."
But on the following morning, when Colin accompanied Colonel Ossington in a walk round the garden, a new light seemed to come to him.
They were passing the little postern of which so much had been said—the postern through which, as the boy declared, he had himself seen the apparition of Neil Leslie disappear on the previous night. Here Colin now stood. He stamped his feet upon the ground.
"Listen!" he said. "Do you hear anything?" He stamped once again. "I've often thought, as I have passed this spot, that the ground seems to give back a hollow sound."
"And if it does, what of it?" asked Colonel Ossington.
"Well," said Colin, with a curious lift of his eyebrows, "I was thinking that it is just possible there may be some cave, or passage, or cellar under here; and that perhaps it was down there that the guns and things you were telling us of last night were stored."
"You may be right," smiled the colonel, "but I don't see that it matters very much now. It's so long ago, you know."
"Yes," went on Colin, "but I should like to find out, all the same. I have often thought of it before—of the underground passage, I mean. Most castles in Scotland have underground passages somewhere, and Castle Leslie can scarcely be an exception. At one time I thought I had found a way into this one." He pointed up to the top of the ivy-covered wall. "You see the place where that buttress ends?" he asked. The colonel nodded. "Well, last spring a jenny wren built her nest up there. I wanted to get it. I climbed up from the inside of the ruin, and crept along the top of the wall. I had got as far as where the nest was when, leaning over to reach it, I felt one of the big stones give way beneath me. I held on by the ivy; but the loosened stone fell with a crash to the ground. I didn't look where it fell. I was only thinking of how I should get down with the nest. But a day or two afterwards I was coming through the place that used to be the guard-room in the old days, before Hawley's dragoons burnt this part of the castle down, and I saw the stone lying there. It wasn't smashed; but it had smashed the flagstone that it had fallen upon. Some parts of the flagstone had dropped through, right down into a sort of black well. I did not try to open the well; although I should have done if any other boys had been here to help me. But this morning I thought of it again in connection with your story——"
"I understand," interrupted the colonel. "You think it may have been down there that old Sir John Leslie hid the arms for the rebels, eh? Well, let me see this fancied entrance to the subterranean passage. Where is it?"
"It's through here," said Colin. And he led his companion through the postern gate into a large roofless room.
In one of the corners there was a heap of garden refuse, covered by a thin layer of melting snow. Colin took an old spade and industriously cleared the rubbish away. Presently he revealed a large cracked flagstone. He went down on his knees and busily endeavoured to dislodge one of the broken fragments. He scraped and tore and pulled at it to no purpose. Then he stood up and stamped upon it. The rattling of loose earth underneath encouraged him to continue.
"Can you find such a thing as a pickaxe?" questioned Colonel Ossington.
Colin shook his head, but ran, nevertheless, in search of some such instrument, returning some minutes afterwards with a heavy sledge-hammer. With this he opened an assault upon the flagstone, and soon succeeded in loosening one small fragment. A small brown rat darted out from the excavation and scampered across the uneven floor.
"Wait!" cried the colonel; "lend me the hammer. Let us try first to remove this smaller stone, then we can better get at the larger one."
He took the sledge-hammer, raised it over his shoulder, and brought it down with a well-directed blow upon the smaller stone, splitting it. A second blow broke it into splinters. These he removed. Beneath them he discovered the end of a rusty bar of iron that was shot like a bolt through an iron ring. The bar seemed to extend under the larger flagstone, supporting it through its centre of gravity. For many minutes he hammered at the rusty iron, and with each blow the flagstone trembled on its axle and a shower of loosened stones and gravel fell into the depths below. With each development the old soldier's energy increased, while Colin looked on absorbed in boyish expectation.
At last the corroded bar broke. The flagstone collapsed and slipped a few inches into the void, where it was arrested by some obstacle. Its removal revealed an irregular opening, some two feet in diameter.
"You were right, boy," remarked the colonel; "there is indeed a secret chamber here, and this is, or once was, its entrance. See! the flagstone has formed a sort of trap-door. It may have been opened by a spring set under the smaller stone at the side. Look down there; you can see the edge of one of the stone stairs."
"Can we get down?" asked Colin.
"It is possible, I think," returned the old soldier. "But we should require a lighted lantern. Could you fetch one?"
Colin ran off. He was absent some ten minutes. During that interval Colonel Ossington contrived so to force back the broken flagstone that it left an opening sufficiently wide to admit his body. He went upon his knees and thrust his feet into the cavity, descending step by step until his eyes were on a level with the paved floor. There he waited, resting with his hands on the second step. The fingers of his right hand touched something that was softer than the cold stone. He gripped it and drew it forth into the fuller light. It was a fragment of mouldy cloth or felt. Attached to it was a disc of tarnished metal upon which the figure "4" was embossed.
"God!" he exclaimed, "it's the badge of the Fourth Foot."
He tore off the badge and thrust it into his pocket. At this moment Colin Leslie appeared with the lighted lantern, and accompanied by his grandfather.
"I am glad you have come too, Sir Donald," said the colonel somewhat absently.
"What boy's adventure are you contriving now, colonel?" demanded Sir Donald. "One would think that you had gone back to your childhood."
"Not quite so far back as that," returned the old soldier grimly, "but my mind has indeed gone back to my young manhood. Give me the light, Colin," he added, turning to the lad. "I had better, perhaps, go down in advance."
"Colin handed him the lantern."
Colin handed him the lantern and stood at the top of the steps watching him slowly and cautiously descend. The light flickered upon the damp moss-grown stones of the walls that formed the sides of the narrow stairway. It went down and down, growing gradually dimmer and dimmer, until at last it died away. The old grandfather and Colin waited, listening. They faintly heard the tread of the colonel's spurred boots echoing hollowly in the darkness. Once they heard him cough, and then all was silent. The minutes slowly passed. Sir Donald grew a trifle nervous, his nervousness being indicated by the impatient tapping of his foot.
"Listen!" cried Colin. "I heard something fall—something that rattled." He knelt down and peered into the opening. "I hear him walking," he whispered. "He's coming nearer now. Now he has stopped. Now he is coming on again. He's on the stairs. He's carrying something that knocks against each step. I can see the reflection of the light now. And now here's the lantern." The boy drew back. "Mind your head, colonel, or you'll knock it," he cried.
Colonel Ossington did not require the caution. Bending his head, he crept upward, holding the lantern in his extended hand. Presently his face appeared in the aperture. It was ghastly white, and his eyes stared wildly. He drew a deep breath of the fresher air.
"You had better come down," he said, glancing up at Sir Donald Leslie; and drawing his left hand upward, he cast an old and rusty broadsword at the old man's feet. Sir Donald glanced at the weapon and kicked it aside.
"Come!" reiterated the colonel in a voice of authority, and the grandfather slowly obeyed. Colin followed him down the steps, although he was aware that he had not been included in the command. Perhaps he would have been wiser to remain where he was, but his boyish curiosity and love of adventure overcame his caution. Step by step they descended into the gloom. The air about them was damp and cold and stifling. The walls dripped with moisture. The stone stairs were slimy. Darkness hemmed them in, saving only for a fitful glimmer of the lantern light that was below them.
"Three steps more," Sir Donald," said the colonel, standing aside on the firm floor of what appeared to be an arched vault. He held the light aloft. "Now, follow me closely," he added; "the passage turns sharply to the left. Be careful of the corner. I knocked my elbow against it just now. Is that the boy behind you?"
"He ought not to have come. Never mind now; let him follow close at your heels. Now halt and look down upon the floor while I hold the light."
The colonel held out his free hand and gripped the older man's arm, directing his gaze into a narrow archway.
"Those are the muskets," he said. "There are two hundred there. I have counted them."
Colin crept up to his grandfather's side, holding him by the skirts of his coat. Looking into the archway he saw the neatly stacked-up guns, with their rusty barrels and locks and rotting stocks.
The colonel drew his companions onward some three or four steps.
"And here are the claymores," said he. "You see the rebels did not get them, after all."
"No, Alan was true," murmured Sir Donald. "I felt sure he would frustrate their delivery. But——" He gripped the soldier's arm and asked in a suppressed but eagerly acquisitive tone: "But where was the gold, colonel? Did Neil take it all—every guinea of it?"
The colonel held his lantern full in front of Sir Donald's face, which he regarded with an expression of undisguised contempt.
"The gold," he answered, "was stored in the next vault. And," he added loftily, as he signed to Sir Donald to go past him, "I think you will find it all there still."
"The light! the light!" demanded Sir Donald. "Hold it nearer, that I may see."
By the help of the lantern he made his way a few steps farther into the chamber. The yellow rays of light were cast into the low vault. On the floor of hewn rock were many little canvas bags, that were so rotten and mouldy that their sides had fallen away under the pressure of the golden guineas that they had contained. The gold glistened in the lantern light. With greedy outstretched hands, and with eyes staring wide with covetousness, Sir Donald leapt at the treasure. He plunged his fingers into the midst of the coins, lifting his filled hands, and letting the gold fall from them in a jingling shower.
"Wonderful!" he cried. "Ah! now I am rich—rich—rich! " He glanced behind him with shrinking, miserly fear. "It's mine—all mine!" he frenziedly exclaimed, and proceeded eagerly to fill his pockets.
Colonel Ossington lightly touched him on the shoulder.
"Remember, my friend, that the money is Jacobite money," said he. "It was meant for the Pretender, you know."
Sir Donald's coat-pockets were already full to overflowing.
"Meant for the Pretender?" he repeated. "Ah, but look! look!" he added, holding up one of the coins to the light, "every one of them bears the head of the King! No; do not go yet! Let me have the lantern."
"The money will not run away," remarked Colonel Ossington, passing on with the lantern. "You have found it, and may return when you will. And now, since we have solved the material part of the mystery, let us go further that you may understand its more human side."
He led the way, with Colin at his side, and the grandfather was perforce obliged to follow.
"There is something here that you must see," said the colonel, as, having turned a sharp angle in the passage, he stood still, with his hat under his arm and holding the light in front of him so that its rays shot along the slimy floor. Wondering, Sir Donald and his grandson bent forward, searching into the gloom. Colin drew back as his eyes rested for a moment on something white. But he advanced again and timidly looked once more. His trembling finger pointed down upon the floor at the gaunt, fleshless face and the tall form of a man that was partly hidden under mouldy folds of a Highland plaid and kilt. At the left shoulder there was a tarnished silver brooch, set in the centre with a dim yellow stone. The man lay flat on his back. His sword was in its scabbard at his side; the blanched bones of his right hand still held the remains of one of the canvas money-bags. The gold guineas lay in a little pile beneath the long fingers.
"He was carrying that bag of gold to give to the Prince's messenger," cried the boy Colin, aghast. "It is Neil—Neil Leslie!"
"Yes," nodded Colonel Ossington. "And he must have been met just here by his murderer."
"Neil?" echoed Sir Donald, reeling back; "my brother Neil? Then he did not escape to France? And he has been dead all this time!" The old man shuddered. "Murdered, did you say? But who could have murdered him down here? Perhaps he died naturally. Perhaps he could not find his way out up those stairs and through the stone trap-door!""The trap-door could certainly be opened only from the outside," remarked the colonel. "This place was evidently built as a dungeon—a prison from which it was not meant that any one should escape. But," he added solemnly, "Neil Leslie was not a prisoner. He probably left the door open, not expecting to be interrupted by the villain who drove that dagger into his honest heart. Do you see the dagger, Donald Leslie?" He pointed to the dead man's breast, and brought the lantern nearer until
"Neil? my brother Neil?"
its gleam fell upon the jewelled hilt of a Highland dirk. "You should recognise the weapon—as I do. It used to hang under the painted portrait of the Lady Belinda. It is the same weapon that Alan Leslie carried away with him on the eve of Culloden fight."
"I do not believe it!" cried Sir Donald excitedly. "My brother Alan never was down here. He did not know of the existence of such a place, any more than I did until this hour. For all that you say I do not believe but that my brother Alan died like a brave man on Culloden Moor, fighting, I thank God, for the King!"
Colonel Ossington silently shook his head and turned away, carrying the lantern with him to the foot of the stairs by which the three had entered the dungeon. Here he stood, holding the lantern so that its light shone only directly in front of him. He confronted Sir Donald and Colin, the while he put his hand into his breast pocket, and drew something forth which he held out for the old man's inspection.
"I found this on one of the upper stairs when I first entered," he said, holding the thing under the light. "It came off a soldier's regimental cap. It is the badge of the Fourth Foot. The man who wore it and who left it lying up there was a man whom I once called my friend; but whom I now know to have been a dishonourable spy, an unscrupulous traitor, an assassin and a fratricide. When Neil Leslie came down here faithfully to fulfil his father's instructions, he was dogged and followed by his brother. It was Alan Leslie who murdered him."
"Then where is Alan now?" interrupted Sir Donald. "Why did he never come home?"
"Because," answered the colonel, "when he came down here to kill his brother, he made the mistake of closing the trap-door behind him. He could not open it, he could not escape. He was imprisoned here with his dead victim. He may have starved; he may have been suffocated by the smoke from the burning building above him that night when Hawley's dragoons set fire to the castle. However it was, he never left this place." The colonel moved aside, allowing the light to shine upon the dull red, mildewed cloth of a soldier's coat that covered the crouching figure of a man long dead. "That is what remains of Alan Leslie," he added grimly. He handed the lantern to Colin, bidding the lad hold it aloft. He knelt down. "When a soldier disgraces his regiment," he continued, "we usually remove the facings from his uniform. This man was not worthy to wear the uniform of so honoured a regiment as the Fourth Foot."
"I think," remarked Colin, "that, rebel though he was, Neil Leslie was by far the better man."
"I am sure of it, my boy," returned Colonel Ossington.