Midwinter/Chapter 11

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Four nights later Alastair was in his little bedroom at the Sleeping Deer, dressing by the light of two home-made candles. He had been taken to this inn by Midwinter because of the honesty of the landlord, who lived only for trout-fishing, and the facilities of the rambling old house for a discreet retirement. He was given an attic at the back where the dwelling part of the building merged in a disused watermill and granary. There was an entrance to it from the first floor, by way of a store cupboard; another from the kitchen regions, and still a third from the mill-house. Accordingly he was able to enter unobtrusively at any hour of the day or night, and had the further advantage that the mill-house road led directly to a covert of elders and so to the hillside. His meals, when he was at home to partake of them, were brought him by the landlord himself, who also would ascend to smoke his pipe of an evening, and discuss the habits of Derbyshire trout as compared with their northern kin.

Clad in his leather and frieze he had spent the days among the valleys and along the great road. The snow had not melted, but it was bound in the stricture of a mild frost, and all day a winter sun shone on the soft white curves of the hills. It was weather to kindle the blood and lift the heart, and Alastair found his journeys pleasant enough, though so far fruitless. He had haunted Brightwell like a cattle-lifting Macgregor looking down on a Lennox byre, and since few could teach him woodcraft in hilly places, he had easily evaded the race of keepers and foresters. Twice he had met the man whom he took to be Sir John Norreys. The first time he had watched him from cover, setting out on horseback by a track which ran from Brightwell to Dovedale—a man in a furious hurry, with a twitching bridle-hand and a nervous eye. The second time he met him full face on the high-road, and seemed to be recognized. Sir John half pulled up, thought better of it, and rode on with one glance behind him. He had made certain inquiries in the neighbourhood and learned that the tall gentleman in the fawn coat was a new-comer and beyond doubt sojourned in Brightwell: but he had a notion that in that vast decaying pile a man might lodge unbeknown to the other dwellers. He was curious to discover if Sir John had yet greeted his lady.

Four days ago she had departed in her coach, fresh horsed from Brightwell, attended by Mr. Johnson and Edom Lowrie. Since then he had seen no sign of the party. The old house had swallowed them up, and neither taking the air in the park nor riding on the highway had any one of them emerged to the outer world. The mystery of the place grew upon him, till he came to look on the bleak house lying in the sparkling amphitheatre of hill as the enchanted castle of a fairy tale. It held a princess and it held a secret—the secret, he was convinced, most vital to his Prince's cause. He need not scour the country; in that one dwelling he could read the riddle.

On this, the fourth night of his reconnaissance, he returned to the inn assured that the first part of his task was over. He must find some way of entering Brightwell and growing familiar with the household, and his head was busy with plans as he slipped into the mill-house in the early dark, and climbed the dusty wooden ladder to the loft which gave on his attic. In his bedroom stood the landlord.

"I heard ye come in by the mill," he said, "and I'm here because I've news ye may like to hear. There's a famous gentleman coming here to-night. Ye'll have heard o' General Oglethorpe, him that's been fighting in Ameriky? He's coming to his supper, no less. His regiment is lying down the vale, and an officer rides here this afternoon and says the General will be to sup sharp at seven o'clock. After that he's to meet a friend here and wants to be left quiet. He needs no bed, for he's riding back to his camp when he's done his business. Now, what d' ye make of that, sir?"

"Where does he sup?" Alastair asked.

"In the Brown Room, the one my lady had."

"When he arrives pray give him a message from me. Say that one who had the happiness to oblige him a week back is in the house, and will do himself the honour of waiting on him if he will name the hour. Is that clear? Now fetch me some hot water, for I must make a toilet."

He got rid of his soaked clothes and assumed his old habit—chocolate coat and green velvet waistcoat, stockings and buckled shoes, and a tie-wig new dressed by the landlord. The exposure of the past days had darkened his skin, and it was a hard-bitten face that looked back at him from the cracked mirror. Before completing his toilet he lay down on the truckle bed and stared at the ceiling. Oglethorpe was friendly to him, and might give him news of moment—he had the name himself of a Jacobite or at any rate of a lukewarm Hanoverian. But the man the General was to meet? He had no doubt it was Sir John and he chuckled at the chance which Fortune had offered him.

As he lay his thoughts roamed wide but always returned to one centre, the Brown Room at the inn. But it was not Oglethorpe or Sir John that he saw there, but a slim girl with eyes now ardent, now laughing, now misty, and a voice that stammered adorably and sang "Diana" like a linnet. Sometimes he saw Brightwell and its chilly hall, but he saw no human personage other than the girl, a little forlorn and lost now, but still happy and dreaming. … He pulled himself up sharply. For the first time in his life a woman's face was filling the eye of his mind—he, the scorner of trivialities whose whole being was dedicate to a manly ambition! He felt irritated and a little ashamed, and began laboriously to examine himself to prove his resolution. Now in the very crisis of his fate he could least afford a whimsy.

The landlord disturbed him when he had become drowsy.

"The gentleman is here—General Oglethorpe. I give him your message, and he says, pleasant-like, 'I can guess who the gentleman is. Tell him that my gratitude is not exhausted and that I will be happy if he will add to his obligations by giving me his company at supper.' Ye'd better hasten, sir, for supper is being dished up."

Alastair followed the landlord through the cobwebby back regions of the store-room and out to the gallery at the head of the stairs whence the Brown Room opened. He noticed that the dusky corridor was brightly lit just opposite the room door because of the lamps in the hall below which shone up a side passage. This glow also revealed in full detail the map which he had studied on his first night there. As he glanced at it, the two great roads from the north seemed to stand out like blood, and Brightwell, a blood-red name, to be the toll-house to shut or open them.

The Brown Room was bright with candles and firelight, and warming his back at the hearth stood a tall man in military undress. He was of a strong harsh aquiline cast of countenance; his skin was somewhat sallow from the hot countries he had dwelt in, but he carried his forty-odd years lightly, and, to Alastair's soldier eye, would be a serious antagonist with whatever weapon of hand or brain. His face relaxed at the sight of the young man and he held out his hand.

"I am overjoyed to see you again, Mr. Maclean. … Nay, I never forget a name or a face … I do not ask your business here, nor will I permit you to ask mine, save in so far as all the world knows it. I have my regiment billeted at Marlock, and am on my way across England to Hull, there to join General Wade. In that there is no secret, for every old woman on Trent side proclaims it. … Let us fall to, sir, for I am plaguily hungry with the frosty air, and this house has a name for cookery."

General Oglethorpe proved himself a trencherman of the calibre of Mr. Samuel Johnson; that is to say, he ate heartily of everything—beefsteak pie, roast sirloin, sheep's tongues, cranberry tarts and a London bag-pudding—and drank a bottle of claret, a quart of ale, and the better part of a bottle of Madeira. But unlike Mr. Johnson he did not become garrulous, nor did the iron restraint of his demeanour relax. The board was cleared and he proceeded to brew a dish of punch, mixing the several ingredients of limes, rum, white sugar and hot water with the meticulosity of an alchemist. Then he produced from a flat silver box which he carried in his waistcoat pocket a number of thin brown sticks, which he offered to his companion.

"Will you try my cigarros, sir? It is a habit which I contracted in Georgia, and I find them mighty comforting to a campaigner. … You journey northward, Mr. Maclean, but you make slow progress." He smiled with a quizzical kindliness which stripped the martinet's cloak from him and left only benevolence.

Alastair smiled back. "I journey slowly for I have had mischances. But I must mend my pace, for I am still far from my home, and my time of leave passes quick."

"From the French King's service?"

"From the French King's service."

"You are aware that there are certain rumours of war in this land?"

"I heard gossip to that effect in Paris."

General Oglethorpe laughed. "I can guess where your sympathies lie, Mr. Maclean. Your name, your birthplace and your profession are signposts to them."

"I too have heard tales from which I could hazard a guess at General Oglethorpe's sentiments," said Alastair.

"Tut, tut, sir. I bear His Majesty's commission and am embarked in His Majesty's service."

"I could name some in the same case—and with the same sympathies."

The other's brows had descended and he was staring in the fire like a perplexed bird of prey.

"I do not altogether deny it. I have been a Member of Parliament for years and I have never concealed my views on politics, sir. I regret that England ever lost her natural and rightful line of kings. I have no love for Ministers with their courting of this neighbour, and baiting of that, and bleeding the commonalty of England for their crazy foreign wars. I detest and abhor the cabal of greedy bloodsuckers that call themselves Whigs. I am a Tory, sir, I serve the ancient constitution of this realm, I love and reverence its Church, and I hold this mongering of novelties an invention of the Devil. But—and it is a potent but—I cannot wish that this attempt of the Chevalier should succeed. I must with all my soul hope that it fail and do my best to ensure that failure."

"Your conclusion scarcely accords with your premises, sir."

"More than may at first sight appear. What has a young man bred abroad in a vapid Court, and suckled into Papistry, to say to the people of England?"

"His church is the same as mine, sir. But he is no bigot, and has sworn to grant to all beliefs that full tolerance which England has denied to his."

"It is not enough. He is the young gallant, a figure from an old chivalrous world. Oh, I do not deny his attraction; I do not doubt that he can charm men's hearts. But, sir, there is a new temper in the land. You have heard of the people they call Methodists—humble folk, humble servants of Almighty God, who carry the Gospel to dark places at the expense of revilings and buffetings and persecutions. I have had them with me in Georgia, and they fight like Cromwell's Ironsides, they are tender and merciful and brave, and they preach a hope for the vilest. With them is the key of the new England, for they bring healing to the souls of the people. … What can your fairy Prince say to the poor and the hungry?"

General Oglethorpe's eye was lit with a fervour which softened the rigour of his face into something infinitely gentle. Alastair had no words to answer so strange a plea.

"But—but King George is no more of that way of thinking than my Prince," he stammered.

The other nodded. "I am not arguing on behalf of his present Majesty. I plead for the English people and I want no change, least of all the violent change of revolution, unless it be to their benefit. A mere transfer of monarchs will do small good to them, and it will bring needless suffering to the innocent. Therefore, I, James Oglethorpe, who am reputed a Jacobite, will do my utmost to nip this rising in the bud and confine it to the barbarous parts of the North. In the service of my country I will pretermit no effort to keep England neutral in the quarrel, for it is in England's participation that the danger lies."

Alastair deemed it wise not to answer, but, as he regarded this man who was now his declared opponent, he felt the satisfaction of a fighter who faces an honourable foe. Here was one whose hand he could clasp before he crossed swords.

"I am no Englishman," he said, "and therefore I am remote from this particular controversy."

The other's eye burned with a fanatic's heat. "I will fight like a tiger for England against all who would do her hurt. God forgive them, but there are many on my side whose hearts are like rotten eggs. They are carrion crows who flock wherever there is blood and pain. In times of civil strife, sir, the base can make money. Had you travelled north by Chester you would have passed through a land of fat pastures and spreading parks and snug manors, and had you asked the name of the fortunate owner you would have been told Sir Robert Grosvenor. You know the name? A worthy gentleman and somewhat of your way of thinking. Now Sir Robert's mother was an heiress and all the faubourgs of London between St James' and Kensington village were her fortune. Whence came that fortune, think you, to enrich the honest knights of Cheshire? 'Twas the fortune of an ancient scrivener who bought up forfeited lands from Cromwell's Government, bought cheap, and sold most profitably at his leisure. There are other fortunes to-day waiting for the skilled broker of fines and attainders. But to make the profit there must be a forfeiture, and for the forfeiture there must be first the treason. Therefore it is in the interest of base men to manufacture rebels, to encourage simple folk to take blindly some irrevocable and fatal step. Do you follow me?"

Alastair nodded automatically. He saw as in a long vista a chain of infamies and the name to them was Sir John Norreys.

"The scoundrels must be in the confidence of both sides," Oglethorpe went on. "With their victims they are honest Jacobites, but next day they are closeted with Mr. Pelham in Whitehall. They will draw a poor innocent so far that he will lose his estate, but they will prevent his loss being of service to the Prince."

The man had risen and strode about the room, a formidable figure of wrath, with his jaw set sternly and his eyes hard.

"Do you know my purpose, Mr. Maclean? So far as the Almighty permits me, I will save the pigeon from the crow. The pigeon will be hindered from meddling in matters of Government, his estate will be saved to him, and the crow, please God, will be plucked. Do you commend my policy?"

"It is the conduct of an honest gentleman, sir, and though I may not share your politics I would hope to share your friendship."

Oglethorpe's face relaxed into the convivial kindliness it had shown at supper.

"Then two friends and honourable opponents will shake hands and bid farewell. You will be for bed, sir, and I must return presently to my regiment."

But as the young man left the room the General seemed in no hurry to call for his horse. He flung another log on the fire, and stood by the hearth with his brows knit in meditation.

Alastair retired to his bedroom but did not undress. His brain was dazzled with new light, and he saw all the events of the past weeks in a new and awful perspective. This man Norreys was the traitor, the agent provocateur who lured honest clodpoles to their doom and pocketed his commission on their ruin. That was what Sir Christopher Lacy had said at Cornbury—the man cared only for gain. But he must be a rogue of vast accomplishments, for he had deceived a proud lady, and he had won the confidence of a shrewd Scots lawyer. It was Kyd's beguilement that staggered him. He, a sagacious man of affairs, had used a traitor as an agent for the most precious news—news which instead of going straight to the Prince would be transferred to the enemy and used for honest men's undoing. General Oglethorpe would prevent the fellow from making his foul profit; it was the business of Alastair Maclean to stamp the breath from him, to rid the Prince's cause of a menace and the world of a villain.

He mused on this strange thing, England, which was like a spell on sober minds. Midwinter had told of Old England like a lover of his mistress, and here was this battered traveller, this Oglethorpe, thrilling to the same fervour. That was something he had not met before. He had been trained to love his family and clan and the hills of his home, and a Prince who summed up centuries of wandering loyalty. But his devotion had been for the little, intimate things, and not for matters large and impersonal like a country or a people. He felt himself suddenly and in very truth a stranger and alone. The Prince, the chiefs, the army—they were all of them strangers here. How could they ask for loyalty from what they so little understood?

The reflection pained him and he put it from him and turned to his immediate business. Kicking off his shoes, he tiptoed back through the store-cupboard and into the long corridor, at the end of which he saw the bright reflection from the hall lamp falling on the map and the Brown Room door. He listened, but there was no sound except a faint clatter from far away in the direction of the kitchen, where presumably the General's servant waited on his master's orders. He stole to the door of the Brown Room for a second, and played the eavesdropper. Yes, there were voices within, a low voice speaking fast, and another replying in monosyllables. He had no wish to overhear them, so he crept back to the store-room door, where he was securely hid. Thence he could see all that he wanted, in the patch of light by the map.

He did not wait long. The door opened, and a figure was illumined for one instant in profile before it turned to descend the stairs. It was a tall man in a long riding-coat which he had unbuttoned in the warmth of the room. He bowed his head a little as one does when one walks stealthily, and his lips were tightly pursed. But where was the sharp nose like a pen, and the pale complexion of Sir John? This man had a skin like red sandstone, a short blunt nose and a jovial mouth. He cast one glance at the map, and then went softly down the staircase.

With a queer flutter of the heart Alastair recognized Mr. Nicholas Kyd.