SNOWBOUND AT THE SLEEPING DEER
The whole staff of the Sleeping Deer were around the door when my lady Norreys, making dainty grimaces at the weather, tripped over the yards of snow-powdered cobbles between the step of her coach and the comfortable warmth of the inn. The landlord, ill-favoured and old, was there with his bow, and the landlady, handsome and not yet forty, with her curtsey, and in the gallery which ran round the stone-flagged hall the chambermaid tribe of Dollys and Peggys clustered to regard the new-comer, for pretty young ladies of quality did not lie every night at a moorland hostelry. But the lady would not tarry to warm her toes by the great fire or to taste the landlady's cordials. A fire had been bespoke in her bedchamber and there she retired to drink tea, which her woman, Mrs. Peckover, made with the secret airs of a plotter in the sanctum beside the bar. The two servants from Weston attended the coach in the inn-yard. Mr. Edom Lowrie comforted himself with a pot of warm ale, while Mr. Samuel Johnson, finding a good fire in the parlour, removed his shoes, and toasted at the ribs his great worsted stocking soles.
Twenty minutes later, when the bustle had subsided, two unassuming travellers appeared below the signboard on which might be seen the fresh-painted gaudy lineaments of a couching fallow deer. The snow was now falling thick, and the wind had risen so that the air was one wild scurry and smother. Midwinter marched straight for the sanctum, and finding it empty but for Mrs. Peckover, continued down a narrow passage, smelling of onions, to a little room which he entered unbidden. There sat the landlord with horn spectacles on his nose, making a splice of a trout rod. At the sight of Midwinter he stood to attention, letting all his paraphernalia of twine and wax and tweezers slip to the floor.
"I have brought a friend," said Midwinter. "See that you entreat him well and do his biddings as if they were my own. For myself I want a horse, friend Tappet, for snow or no I must sleep in the next shire."
So as Alastair was changing into his own clothes, which the landlord fetched for him from Edom, he saw from his window in the last faint daylight a square cloakless figure swing from the yard at a canter and turn south with the gale behind it.
The young man had now secured all his belongings, some having come with Edom by grace of the charcoal-burner and the rest from Squire Thicknesse's manor in the lady's charge. As he dressed, his mind was busy on his old problem, and he had sadly to confess that though he had covered much country in recent days he had got little new light. More than once he had tried to set Midwinter's mind to work on it, but, beyond his advice to come to Brightwell, he had shown no interest. Why should he, Alastair reflected, since his creed forswore all common loyalties? But as he had plodded up and down the foothills that day his thoughts had been running chiefly on the lady's husband whom she believed to be now with the Prince, but who most certainly was, or was about to be, in the vicinity of Brightwell. For what purpose? To receive a letter from Edom—a continuing correspondence, sent by Kyd, and charged with the most desperate import to the Prince—a correspondence which should be without delay in the Prince's hands. What did Sir John Norreys in the business? Why did Kyd send the letters by Brightwell, which was not the nearest road to Lancashire?
As he came downstairs he noticed a map hanging on a panel between prints of the new gardens at Chatsworth and the old Marquis of Granby. It was a Dutch thing, drawn by Timothy Hooge a hundred years before, and it showed all the southern part of the Peak country, with fragments of Yorkshire, Notts and Staffordshire adjoining. It was hard to read, for it had been pasted on a wooden board and then highly varnished, but the main roads were strongly marked in a purplish red. He saw the road from the north-west descend the valleys to Derby and so to London, the road from Manchester and Lancashire which the Prince's army would travel. With some trouble he found Brightwell, and to his surprise saw the road which passed it marked with equal vigour, as if it vied with the other in importance. A moment's reflection told him the reason. It was the main way from the West. By this road must come the levies from Wales if they were to join the Prince before he reached Derby and the flat country. By this road, too, must all messages come from West England so soon as the army left Manchester. More, the Hanoverian forces were gathering in Nottinghamshire. If they sought to cut in in the Prince's rear they would march this way. … Brightwell was suddenly revealed as a point of strategy, a ganglion; if treachery were abroad, here it would roost.
He walked into the kitchen, for he had an odd fancy about the horseman whom he had seen ride away a little before Lady Norreys' arrival—an incredible suspicion which he wished to lay. A kitchen wench was busy at the fire, and on a settle a stableman sat drinking beer while a second stamped the snow from his boots at the back door. The appearance of a dapper gentleman in buckled shoes and a well-powdered wig so startled the beer-drinker that he spilled half his mug on the floor. Alastair ordered fresh supplies for all three and drank his on the seat beside the others. Had they been in the yard all afternoon? They had, and had prophesied snow since before breakfast, though Master wouldn't have it so and had sent the waggons to Marlock, where they would be storm-stayed. … Yes. A rider had come down the valley and had put up his horse for the better part of an hour. He had been indoors most of the time—couldn't say why. A tall fellow, Bill said. No, not very powerful—lean shoulders—pale face—big nose. Young, too—Tom reckoned not more than twenty-five. … Alastair left them with an easier mind, for the worst of his suspicions had been disproved. The back he had seen from the ridge-top posting up the dale had had a disquieting resemblance to Kyd's.
In the parlour he found Mr. Johnson stretching his great bulk before a leaping fire and expanding in the warmth of it. The windows had not been shuttered, so the wild night was in visible contrast to the snug hearth. A small girl of five or six years, the landlady's child, had strayed into the room, and, fascinated by a strange gentleman, had remained to talk. She now sat on one of Johnson's bony knees, while he told her a fairy tale in a portentous hollow voice. He told of a dragon, a virtuous dragon in reality a prince, who lived in a Derbyshire cave, and of how the little girl stumbled on the cave, found the dragon, realised his true character, and lived with him for a year and a day, which was the prescribed magical time if he were to be a prince again. He was just describing the tiny bed she had in the rock opposite the dragon's lair, which lair was like a dry mill-pond, and the child was punctuating the narrative with squeals of excitement, when Alastair entered. Thereupon the narrator became self-conscious, the story hastened to a lame conclusion, and the small girl climbed from his knee and with many backward glances sidled out of the room.
"You find me childishly employed, sir," said Johnson, "but I dearly love a little miss and I think my company has charms for them. I rejoiced to hear from the Scotch serving-man, who by the way is a worthy fellow, that you were expected to meet us at this place. We are fortunate in winning here thus early, for presently the snow will so conglobulate that the road will be impossible for coach and horses. … You have not yet dined, sir? No more have I or the Scotchman, and my lady has retired to her chamber. Our hostess promised that the meal should not be long delayed, and I have bidden the Scotchman to share it, for though his condition is humble he has becoming manners and a just mind. I do not defend the sitting down of servants and masters as aoccurrence, but customs abate their rigidity on a journey."
To Johnson's delight a maid entered at that moment for the purpose of laying the table. She lit a half-dozen of candles, and closed and barred the heavy shutters so that the only evidence of the storm that remained was the shaking of the window frames, the rumbling in the chimney and the constant fine hissing at the back of the fire where the snow descended. This distant reminder gave an edge to the delicate comfort of the place, and as fragrant odours were wafted from the kitchen through the open door Johnson's spirits rose and his dull eyes brightened like children's at the sight of sweets.
"Of all the good gifts of a beneficent Providence to men," he cried, "I think that none excels a well-appointed inn, and I call it a gift, for our fallible mortal nature is not capable unaided of devising so rare a thing. Behold me, Captain Maclean. My wealth is less than a crown and, unless I beg my way, I see not how I can return to Chastlecote. I am dependent upon my dear young lady for the expense of this journey, which she chose to command. Therefore I do not feel justified in ordering what my fancy dictates. Yet so strongly am I delighted by this place that I propose to spend this my last crown on a bowl of bishop to supplement the coming meal, which from its odour should be worthy of it. Like Ariadne in her desertion I find help in Bacchus."
"Nay, sir, I am the host," said Alastair. "Last night I slept by a tinkler's fire and dined off a tinkler's stew. To-night we shall have the best the house affords. The food, I take it, is at the discretion of the landlady, but the wine shall be at yours."
"Oh brave we!" cried Johnson. "Let us have in the landlord forthwith, for, Captain Maclean, sir, I would be indeed a churl if I scrupled to assent to your good fellowship."
He rang the bell violently and, when the landlord was fetched, entered upon a learned disquisition on wines, with the well-thumbed cellar-book of the inn as his text. "Claret we shall not drink, though our host recommends his binns and it is the favourite drink of gentlemen in your country, sir. In winter weather it is too thin, and, even when well warmed, too cold. Nay, at its best it is but a liquor for boys."
"And for men?" Alastair asked.
"For men port, and for heroes brandy."
"Then brandy be it."
"Nay, sir," he said solemnly. "Brandy on the unheroic, such as I confess myself to be, produces too soon and certainly the effect of drunkenness. Drunkenness I love not, for I am a man accustomed to self-examination, and I am conscious when I am drunk, and that consciousness is painful. Others know not when they are drunk or sober. I know a man, a very worthy bookseller, who is so habitually and equally drunk that even his intimates cannot perceive that he is more sober at one time than another. Besides, my dear lady may summon us to a hand at cartes or to drink tea with her."
Eventually he ordered a bottle of port, one of old Madeira and one of brown sherry, that he might try all three before deciding by which he should abide. Presently Edom was summoned, and on his heels came dinner. It proved to be an excellent meal to which Mr. Johnson applied himself with a serious resolution. There was thick hare soup, with all the woods and pastures in its fragrance, and a big dressed pike, caught that morning in the inn stew-pond. This the two Scots did not touch, but Mr. Johnson ate of it largely, using his fingers, because, as he said, he was short-sighted and afraid of bones. Then came roast hill mutton, which he highly commended. "Yesterday," he declared, "we also dined upon mutton—mutton ill-fed, ill-killed, ill-kept and ill-dressed. This is as nutty as venison." But he reserved his highest commendations for a veal pie, made with plums, which he averred was his favourite delicacy. With the cheese and wheaten cakes which followed he sampled the three bottles and decided for the port. Alastair and Edom were by comparison spare eaters, and had watched with admiration the gallant trencher-work of their companion. For liquor they drank a light rum punch of Alastair's compounding, while Mr. Johnson consumed, in addition to divers glasses of sherry and Madeira, two bottles of rich dark port, dropping a lump of sugar into each glass and stirring it with the butt of a fork.
And all the while he talked, wisely, shrewdly, truculently, and with a gusto comparable to that which he displayed in the business of eating.
"You slept hard last night?" he asked of Alastair. "How came you here?"
"On foot. For ten days I have been in an older world with a man who is a kind of king there." He spoke for a little of Midwinter, but Johnson was unimpressed.
"I think I have heard these boasts before, sir. When a man decries civility and exalts barbarism, it is because he is ill fitted to excel in good society. So when one praises rusticity it is because he is denied the joys of town. A man may be tired of the country, but when he is tired of London he is tired of life."
"Yet the taste can be defended," said Alastair. "A lover of natural beauty will be impatient of too long a sojourn in town, and if he would indulge his fancy he must leave the highway."
Mr. Johnson raised his head and puffed out his cheeks.
"No, sir, I do not assent to this fashionable cant of natural beauty, nor will I rave like a green girl over scenery. One part of the earth is very much as another to me, provided it support life. The most beautiful garden is that which produces most fruits, and the fairest stream that which is fullest of fish. As for mountains——"
The food and the wine had flushed Mr. Johnson's face, and his uncouth gestures had become more violent. Now with a wheel of his right hand he swept two glasses to the floor and narrowly missed Edom's head.
"Mountains!" he cried, "I deny any grandeur in the spectacle. There is more emotion for me in a furlong of Cheapside than in the contemplation of mere elevated bodies."
Edom, with an eye on the port, was whispering to Alastair that they would soon be contemplating another elevated body, when there came a knocking and the landlady entered.
"Her ladyship's services to you, sirs," she announced, "and she expects Mr. Johnson to wait upon her after the next half-hour, and she begs him to bring also the gentleman recently arrived with whom she believes she has the honour of an acquaintance." The landlady, having got the message by heart, delivered it with the speed and monotony of a bell-man. Mr. Johnson rose to his feet and bowed.
"Our service to my lady," he said, "and we will obey her commands. Our service, mark you," and he inclined towards Alastair. The summons seemed to have turned his thoughts from wine, for he refused the bottle when it was passed to him.
"The dear child is refreshed, it would seem," he said. "She found this morning's journey irksome, for she has little patience. Reading she cannot abide, and besides the light was poor."
"Is madam possessed of many accomplishments?" Alastair asked, because it was clear that the other expected him to speak on the subject.
"Why no, sir. It is not right for a gentlewoman to be trained like a performing ape. Adventitious accomplishments may be possessed by any rank, but one can always distinguish the born gentlewoman."
Then he repented.
"But I would not have you think that she is of dull wits. Nay, she is the most qualitied lady I have ever seen. She has an admirable quick mind which she puts honestly to yours. I have had rare discussions with her. Reflect, sir; she has lived always in the broad sunshine of life, and has had no spur to form her wits save her own fancy. A good mind in such a one is a greater credit than with those who are witty for a livelihood. 'Twill serve her well in matrimony, for no woman is the worse for sense and knowledge. For the present, being not three weeks married, her mind is in a happy confusion."
He smiled tenderly as he spoke, like a father speaking of a child.
"She is happy, I think," he said, and repeated the phrase three times. "You have seen her," he turned to Alastair. "You can confirm my belief that she is happy?"
"She is most deeply in love," was the reply.
"And transmutes it into happiness," said Johnson, and repeated with a rolling voice some lines of poetry, beating time with his hand,
"Love various minds does variously inspire;
It stirs in gentle bosoms gentle fire
Like that of incense on the altar laid."
"There," said he, "Dryden drew from a profundity which Pope could not reach. But it is time for us to be waiting on my lady." He hoisted himself from his chair, brushed the crumbs from his waistcoat, straightened his rusty cravat, and opened the door with a bow to the others. He was in the best of spirits.
The landlady was waiting to show the two upstairs, Edom having meantime retired to smoke a pipe in the bar. As they ascended, the gale was still pounding on the roof and an unshuttered lattice showed a thick drift of snow on the outer sill, but over the tumult came the echo of a clear voice singing. To Alastair's surprise it was a song he knew, the very song that Midwinter had played two nights before. "Diana and her darling crew" sang the voice, and as the door opened it was Diana herself that seemed to the young man to be walking to meet him. Vera incessu patuit Dea.
Mrs. Peckover had dressed her hair, which the coach journey had disarranged, but to Alastair's eye her air was childlike, as contrasted with the hooped and furbelowed ladies of the French court. Her skirts were straight and unmodish, so that her limbs moved freely, and the slim young neck was encircled with her only jewel—a string of pearls. The homely inn chamber, which till a few hours before had been but the Brown Room, was now to him a hall in a palace, a glade in the greenwood, or wherever else walk princesses and nymphs.
She gave him her hand and then dropped into a chair, looking at him earnestly from under her long eyelashes.
"I thought that b-by this time you would be in L-Lancashire, Captain Maclean."
"So also did I," and he told her the story of Gypsy Ben and his morning's hunt. "There is business I have had news of in these parts, a riddle I must unravel before I can ride north with a quiet mind. The enemy musters in Nottinghamshire, and I must carry word of his dispositions."
Her brown eyes had kindled. "Ben is a rogue then! By Heaven, sir, I will have him stript and whipt from Thames to Severn. Never fear but my vengeance shall reach him. Oh, I am heartily glad to know the truth, for though I have used him much I have had my misgivings. He carried letters for me to my dear Sir John." She stopped suddenly. "That is why the replies are delayed. Oh, the faithless scoundrel! I can love a foe but I do abhor all traitors. … Do you say the enemy musters in Nottingham?" The anger in her voice had been replaced by eagerness at this new thought.
"So it is reported, and, as I read it, he may march by this very road if he hopes to take the Prince's flank. You at Brightwell may have the war in your garden."
Her eyes glistened. "If only Sir John were here! There is the chance of a famous exploit. You are a soldier, sir. Show me, for I love the gossip of war."
On the hearthstone with a charred stick he drew roughly the two roads from the north. "Here or hereabouts will lie the decision," he said. "Cumberland cannot suffer the Prince to approach nearer London without a battle. If you hear of us south of Derby undefeated, then you may know, my lady, that honesty has won."
She cried out, twining her hands.
"Tell me more, sir. I had thought to pass the evening playing Pope Joan with my Puffin, but you are here to teach me a better pastime. Instruct me, for I am desperate ignorant."
Alastair repeated once again his creed in which during the past days he had come the more firmly to believe. There must be a victory in England, but in the then condition of Wales and the West a very little victory would suffice to turn the scale. The danger lay in doubting counsels in the Prince's own circle. Boldness, and still boldness, was the only wisdom. To be cautious was to be rash; to creep soberly south with a careful eye to communications was to run a deadly peril; to cut loose and march incontinent for London was safe and prudent. "Therefore I must get quickly to the Prince's side," he said, "for he has many doubting Thomases around him, and few with experience of war."
"He has my Sir John," she said proudly. "Sir John is young, and has not seen such service as you, but he is of the same bold spirit. I know his views, for he has told them me, and they are yours."
"There are too many half-hearted, and there is also rank treason about. Your Gypsy Ben is the type of thousands."
She clenched her hands and held them high. "How I l-loathe it! Oh, if I thought I could betray the Cause I should hang myself. If I thought that one I loved could be a traitor I should d-die." There was such emotion in her voice that the echo of it alarmed her and she changed her tone.
"Puffin," she cried, "are you honest on our side? I have sometimes doubted you."
"Madam," Mr. Johnson replied in the same bantering voice, "I can promise that at any rate I will not betray you. Being neither soldier nor statesman, I am not yet called to play an overt part in the quarrel, but I am a Prince's man inasmuch as I believe in the divine origin of the Christian state and therefore in the divine right of monarchs to govern. I am no grey rat from Hanover."
"Yet," she said, with a chiding finger, "I have heard you say that a Tory was a creature generated between a non-juring parson and one's grandmother."
"Nay, my dear lady," he cried, "such heresy was never mine. I only quoted it as a pernicious opinion of another, and I quoted too my answer that 'the Devil, as the first foe to constituted authority, was the first Whig.’"
At this juncture Mrs. Peckover appeared with a kettle of boiling water and the rest of the equipment of tea, which the girl dispensed out of the coarse inn earthenware and sweetened with the coarse sugar which Mr. Johnson had used for his port. While the latter drank his dish noisily, she looked curiously at Alastair.
"You are no politician, Captain Maclean, and doubtless have no concern with the arguments with which our gentlemen soothe their consciences. You do not seek wealth or power—of that I am certain. What are the bonds that join you to the Prince?"
"I am a plain soldier," he said, "and but fulfil my orders."
"Nay, but you do not answer me. You do more than obey your orders; you are an enthusiast, as Sir John is—as I am—as that dull Puffin is not. I am curious to know the reason of your faith."
Alastair, looking into the fire, found himself constrained to reply.
"I am of the old religion," he said, "and loyalty to my king is one of its articles."
She nodded. "I am a daughter of another church, which has also that teaching."
"Also I am of the Highlands, and I love the ancient ways. My clan has fought for them and lost, and it is in my blood to fight still and risk the losing."
Her eyes encouraged him, and he found himself telling the tale of Clan Gillian—the centuries-long feud with Clan Diarmaid, the shrinking of its lands in Mull and Morvern, the forays with Montrose and Dundee, the sounding record of its sons in the wars of Europe. He told of the old tower of Glentarnit, with the loch lapping about it, and his father who had no other child but him; of the dreams of his youth in the hot heather; of that little ragged clan which looked to him as leader and provider; and into his voice there came the pathos and passion of long memories.
"I fight for that," he said; "for the old things."
It seemed that he had touched her. Her eyes were misty and with a child's gesture she laid a hand on his sleeve and stroked it. The spell which had fallen on them was broken by Mr. Johnson.
"I conceive," he said, "that the power of the Scottish chief is no less than Homeric, and his position more desirable than that of any grandee in England. He may be poor, but he has high duties and exacts a fine reverence. When I was a child my father put into my hands Martin's book on the Western Isles, and ever since I have desired to visit them and behold the patriarchal life with my own eyes."
"Your Highlanders are good soldiers?" she asked.
"They are the spear-point of the Prince's strength," said Alastair.
"It is a strange time," said Johnson, "which sees enlisted on the same side many superfine gentlemen of France, certain sophisticated politicians of England, and these simple, brave, ignorant clansmen."
"There is one bond which unites them all," she cried with enthusiasm, "which places my Sir John and the humblest Scotch peasant on an equality. They have the honesty to see their duty and the courage to follow it. What can stand against loyalty? It is the faith that moves mountains."
"Amen, my dear lady," said Johnson, and Alastair with a sudden impulse seized her hand and carried it to his lips.
The next morning dawned as silent as midnight. The wind had died, the snowfall had ceased, and the world lay choked, six-foot drifts in the road, twenty foot in the dells, and, with it all, patches of hill-top as bare as a man's hand. The shepherds were out with the first light digging sheep from the wreaths, and the cows after milking never left the byres. No traveller appeared on the road, for a coach was a manifest impossibility, and a horse little better. Alastair and Johnson breakfasted at leisure, and presently the elder of the Weston servants brought word of the condition of the highway. This was borne by Mrs. Peckover to her mistress, who summoned Mr. Johnson to her to discuss the situation. The landlord was unhopeful. Unless he could put six horses to it the coach would not get to Brightwell, though a squad of men went ahead to clear the drifts. The extra four horses he could not provide since his waggons were all at Marlock and the two riding horses were useless for coach work. The best plan would be to send to Brightwell for the requisite horses, and this should be done later in the day, if no further snow fell. The lady pouted, but settled herself comfortably at cartes with her maid.
She inquired after Alastair's plans, and was told that he would make a shift to travel, since his errand brooked no delay. Thereafter he found the landlord and drew him aside. "You were bidden by our friend to take orders from me," he said. "I have but the one. I stay on here, but you will let it be known that I have gone—this day after noon. You will give me a retired room with a key, forbid it to chambermaids, serve me with your own hand, and show me some way of private entry. It is important that I be thought to have left the countryside."
The man did as he was told and Alastair spent the morning with Mr. Johnson, who suffered from a grievous melancholy after the exhilaration of the night before. At first he had turned the pages of the only book in the inn, an ancient devotional work entitled "A Shove for a Heavy-sterned Christian." But presently he flung it from him and sat sidelong in a chair with his shoulders humped, his eye dull and languid, and his left leg twitching like a man with the palsy. His voice was sharp-pitched, as if it came from a body in pain.
"I am subject to such fits," he told Alastair. "They come when my mind is unemployed and when I have pampered my body with over-rich food. Now I suffer from both causes. Nay, sir, do not commiserate me. Each of us must live his life on the terms on which it is given him. Others have some perpetual weakness of mind or some agonising pain. I have these black moods when I see only the littleness of life and the terrors of death."
Lady Norreys had written a letter to her husband's great-uncle at Brightwell, and armed with it Alastair set out a little before midday. He had dressed himself in the frieze and leather with which Midwinter had provided him, for it was as good a garb as a kilt for winter snows. The direction was simple. He had but to follow the valley, for Brightwell was at its head, before the road began to climb to the watershed.
To one who had shot hinds on steeper hills in wilder winters the journey was child's play. He made his road by the barer ridges, and circumvented the hollows or crossed them where matted furze or hazel made a foundation. He found that the higher he moved up the vale the less deep became the fall, and the shallower the wreaths, as if the force of the wind had been abated by the loftier mountains. Brightwell lay in a circle of woods on whose darkness the snow had left only a powder; before it ran the upper streams of a little river; behind it the dale became a ravine and high round-shouldered hills crowded in on it.
A thin column of smoke rose from a chimney into the bitter windless noon, so the place was inhabited. But the gates of the main entrance were shut—massive gates flanked by stone pillars bearing a cognizance of three mullets on a chief—and the snow of the avenue was a virgin sheet of white. Alastair entered the park by a gap in the wall, crossed the snow-filled river, and came by way of a hornbeam avenue to the back parts of the house. There he found signs of humanity. The courtyard was trampled into slush, and tracks led out from it to the woody hills. But nevertheless an air of death sat on the place, as if this life it bore witness to was only a sudden start in a long slumber. With his spirits heavily depressed he made his way to what seemed to be the door, and entered a lesser courtyard, where he was at once attacked by two noisy dogs.
As he drove them off, half thankful for their cheerful violence, an old man, dressed in black like a butler, appeared. He had a thin peevish face, and eyes that squinted so terribly that it was impossible to guess the direction of his gaze. He received the letter without a word and disappeared. After a considerable lapse of time he returned and bade Alastair follow him through a labyrinth of passages, till they reached a high old panelled hall, darkened by lozenged heraldic windows, and most feebly warmed by a little fire of damp faggots. There he was left alone a second time, while he had leisure to observe the immense dusty groining and the antlers and horns, black as bog oak, on the walls. Then suddenly a woman stood before him.
She was tall as a grenadier and beaked like a falcon, and to defend her against the morning cold she wore what seemed to be a military coat and a turban. Her voice was surprisingly deep and large.
"You are the messenger from the Sleeping Deer? My lady Norreys lies there storm-stayed, because of the snow and asks for horses? You travelled that road yourself. Would six horses bring a coach through?"
Alastair, coarsening his accent as best he could, replied that with care six horses could get a coach to Brightwell.
"Then return at once and say that the horses will be there an hour before sunset."
A new voice joined in, which came from an older woman, fat as the other was lean, who had waddled to her side.
"But, sister, bethink you we have not the animals."
The first speaker turned fiercely. "The animals must and shall be found. We cannot have our new cousin moping in a public hostel on her first visit to us. For shame, Caroline."
"Back with you," she turned to Alastair. "Bennet will give you a glass of ale, but see you do not dally over it."
The buttery ale was not such as to invite dalliance, and like the whole place smacked either of narrow means or narrow souls. Even the kitchen, of which he had a glimpse, was comfortless. To warm his blood Alastair trotted across the park, and as he ran with his head low almost butted into a horseman who was riding on one of the paths that converged on the back courtyard. He pulled himself up in time, warned by the rider's cry, and saw pass him a gentleman in a heavy fawn riding-coat, whose hat was pulled down over his brows and showed little of his face. Two sharp eyes flashed on him and then lifted, and a sharp nose, red with the weather, projected over the high coat collar.
Alastair stared after him and reached certain conclusions. That was the nose he had seen by the light of Edom's lantern the night he spent with Kyd at the inn. That was the back he had observed yesterday afternoon riding away from the Sleeping Deer. Thirdly and most important—and though his evidence was scanty he had no doubt on the matter—the gentleman was Sir John Norreys. My lady when she reached Brightwell would find her husband.