Midwinter/Chapter 12

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XII

THE HUT IN THE OAK SHAW

The sinking at the heart disappeared long before Alastair reached his attic, and was replaced by a violent heat of anger. He lit a candle, for the dark irked him, and sat on his bed with his face as scarlet as if it had been buffeted. He felt his temples throb and a hot dryness at the back of his throat. For the moment thoughts of the dire peril to the Cause were swallowed up in natural fury at a rogue.

Blind fool that he had been! All the steps were now bitterly clear in his bedraggled Odyssey. At Cornbury Kyd had been sowing tares in my lord's mind—not in partnership with the Duchess Kitty, of that he was assured—he did not believe that that vivacious lady, Whig as she might be, was a partner of his villainy. From the first encounter at the roadside inn the man had dogged him; perhaps that meeting had been premeditated. The scene at Flambury, the accusing mummer in Squire Thicknesse's Justice Room, the well-informed warrant, Ben the Gypsy and his treachery—all were the doing of the pawky Lammermuir laird. General Oglethorpe would use his services but prevent his getting his reward; but there were others less scrupulous, and anyhow these services spelled death to the Prince's fortunes. … A second Grosvenor fortune would be achieved! No, by God, it should not, if Alastair Maclean were left another six months alive!

Sir John Norreys was the man's tool, and the news from the West passed through him to Kingston and Wade, and Ligonier and Cumberland, and Mr. Pelham in London. Mr. Pelham doubtless had taken steps. He would arrest the levy in the West before it had grown dangerous; and the fines and forfeitures of broken loyalists would go to enrich the Exchequer and Mr. Nicholas Kyd of Greyhouses. … He had lost his dislike of Sir John. That huckstering baronet was only an instrument in the hand of a cleverer knave.

But why was Kyd here, when he had sent Edom to Brightwell with the news that he was not to be looked for before the close of the month? He did not believe that Edom had lied, so either there was a deeper game afoot, or Kyd had changed his plans. He thought the latter, for even rogues were the sport of circumstance. Some news had reached him of surpassing importance and he had posted all that way to see Oglethorpe, who, as a former Jacobite, would be the more readily believed by the Government when he acted against his former friends.

It stood to reason that Kyd would visit Brightwell, to see Norreys, to instruct his servant—some errand or other, even if he returned next day to the South. Brightwell was the Philippi of the campaign, the place of meetings, or why had Norreys been sent there? Even now the laird's ruddy visage and the baronet's lean jaw might be close together in some damnable machination. … And the lady, the poor lady. At the thought of her Alastair clenched his hands, and shut his eyes tight to kill the pain in them. That poor nymph, that dainty innocence in such a den of satyrs!

And then, oddly enough, his mood changed to a happier one as the picture of Claudia Norreys brightened on the screen of his memory. Please God, she was cut off now for ever from the man she called husband. Her eyes must soon be opened, and he pictured her loathing, her horror of disgust. There were other thoughts at the back of his mind, which he choked down, for this was no time for pretty fancies. But it comforted him to think that he was fighting for the happiness of the girl who sang "Diana."

He slept little and at dawn was up and dressed in his frieze and leather, his coarse stockings and his hob-nailed shoes. The frost was passing, and a mild south wind blew up the vale, softening the snow crust and sending runnels of water down the hollows and eaves of the great drifts. Alastair found the landlord breakfasting in the dog-kennel he called his room.

"I am going to Brightwell," he told him, "and may be absent for days. Expect me back when you see me. Keep my room locked, and leave the key as before in the crack below the broken axle-hole of the mill." Then he stepped out-of-doors, where the milkers were just opening the byres, and soon was on the hillside with his face to the High Peak.

He crossed the high-road and looked at the tracks. There was one fresh and clear, that of a man in heavy boots plodding towards the inn. There were faint hoof marks also, but they seemed to be old. He reflected that the thaw could not have begun till after midnight, and that if Kyd had ridden this road his horse's track would have shown no more than the others of yesterday.

The sun was well above the horizon when he reached the park wall of Brightwell and entered the demesne by his usual gap. It was a morning like early spring, when the whole world was full of melting snows, running waters and light breezes. His plan was to go to the wood which overhung the kitchen yard and gave a prospect of the house and all its environs. There he would watch till noon, in the hope that either Kyd would appear or one of Lady Norreys' party. If the former, he would follow him and have the interview for which his soul longed; if the latter, then he would find a way of getting speech and learning the nature of the household. If nothing happened by noon, he would contrive to make his way into the kitchen as before, and trust to his wits to find an errand.

He saw no one as he forded the now turbulent stream and climbed the farther slope to the wood of hazels and ashes which clung like an eyebrow to the edge of a bare grey bluff, beneath which were the roofs of the rearmost outbuildings. But as he entered the wood he received a shock. Suddenly he had the consciousness that he was being observed, which comes as from a special sense to those who have lived much in peril of their lives in lonely places. He cowered like a rabbit, and seemed to detect very faint and far-off movements in the undergrowth which were too harsh and sudden for a wild animal. Then they ceased, and the oppression passed. He threaded his way through the undergrowth to his old lair beside a stone, where a tangle of fern hid his head, and there he sat him down to wait.

It was a very wet anchorage. The frozen ground beneath him was melting into slush, rivulets descended from the branches, vagrant winds blew avalanches of melting snow like hail in his face. He grew cold and stiff, and there was no such drama on the stage before him as might have caused him to forget his icy stall. He saw in every detail the morning awakening of a Derbyshire manor. A man with his head tied up in a stocking wheeled barrow-loads of chopped logs from the wood-hovel; another brought milk pails from the byres; while two stable-boys led out to water various horses, among which Alastair recognized those once ridden by Mr. Johnson and Edom. The butler Bennet, wearing a kind of dingy smock, shuffled out-of-doors and cried shrilly for someone who failed to appear. Then came a long spell of quiet—breakfast, thought Alastair. It was broken by a stout fellow in boots, whom he had not seen before, coming from the direction of the kitchen, shouting the name of "Peter." Peter proved to be one of the stable-boys, who, having been goaded by a flight of oaths into activity, produced in a space of five minutes a horse saddled and bridled and tolerably well groomed. This the man in boots led round to the front of the house, and presently, out from the shelter of the leafless avenue, appeared Sir John Norreys, in a hurry as usual and heading for the bridle-path to Dovedale.

This told Alastair two things. First, that in all likelihood Mr. Kyd had never been to Brightwell, or had left earlier, otherwise Sir John would scarcely have fled his company. Second, that the said Sir John had been restored to his lady and was living openly in the house, and not, as he had half suspected, hidden in some priest-hole in the back parts.

The morning passed on leaden wings, for the thought that Kyd was not there had dashed Alastair's spirits. Once he seemed to hear the sound of breathing close at hand, and after some search traced it to a deep bed of leaves under which a hedgehog was snoring in its winter sleep. Once the pied snout of a badger, returning late to his earth, parted the thicket. Just before noon he saw that which set his mind off on a new tack. Down the valley, a matter of half a mile from the house, a brook entered the stream from the west, and, since the hills there overhung the water, flowed for the last part of its course in a miniature ravine. Both sides of the dell were thickly covered with scrub oak, but glades had been cut, and at the intersection of two on the near bank stood a thatched hut. Alastair had noticed it before, and from his present eyrie it was clearly visible.

Below him in the courtyard the butler suddenly appeared and, shading his eyes, looked down the valley. Then he took from his pocket a handkerchief and waved it three times, staring hard after each wave. Alastair followed his gaze and saw that he was looking towards the oak wood. Presently from the hut there a figure emerged, waved a white rag three times, and disappeared in the scrub. The butler seemed satisfied, and turned back to the house, from which he emerged again with a covered basket. A boy rose from a bench, took the basket and set off at a boy's trot. Alastair watched his progress and noted that he did not take the direct road, but kept unobtrusively in the shade of thickets. He avoided the glades and reached the hut by an overland route through the scrub. He seemed to stay about a minute within, and then hurried back by the way he had gone. The butler was waiting for him in the yard, and the two talked for a little, after which the boy went off whistling.

There was someone in the hut in the oak scrub—someone who was being fed, and who did not wish to reveal himself to the house. It could only be Kyd. At the notion Alastair's face flushed and he forgot his cold vigil. The road was open for that meeting with Kyd, alone and secure, which was his main desire. Having satisfied himself that the coast was clear, he began to worm his way along the hillside.

At the edge of the covert he reconnoitred again. A figure had revealed itself in the pleasance which skirted one side of the house—a large figure which took the air on a green walk and appeared to be reading, with a book held very near its eyes. It was Mr. Samuel Johnson, and for one moment he hesitated as to whether he should not first have speech with him. There was ample cover to reach him by way of a sunk fence. It was a critical decision, had he known it, but he took it lightly. His duty and his pleasure was first to settle with Kyd.

He reached the oak shaw without difficulty, and, like the boy, shunned the glades and squeezed through the thick undergrowth. He stopped once, for he thought he heard a faint whistle, but decided that it was only a bird. There were no windows in the hut, which, as he neared it, proved to be a far solider thing than he had imagined, being built of stout logs, jointed between stouter uprights, and roofed in with thatch as carefully woven as that of a dwelling-house. He listened, but all was quiet within.

The door yielded and he stepped inside with a quick motion, drawing it behind him, for the place was in sight of the house. … Then something smote him in the dark. He felt himself falling, and threw out his hand, which gripped only on vacancy and blackness. …

The first pin-prick of consciousness found him climbing. There was a sound of sea water in his ears, and the salt tingled in his eyes and nostrils, for he had been diving from the Frenchman's Rock and was still breathless with it. Now he was going up and up steeps of bracken and granite to the flat top where the ripe blackberries were. He was on Eilean a Fhraoich, had crossed over that morning in Angus Og's coble—a common Saturday's ploy. … But he found it very hard to get up the ledges, for they were always slipping from beneath him, and only wild clutches at the bracken kept him from slithering down to the beach. Also his head sang abominably, and there was a queer smell in his nose, more than salt, a smell like burning—burning lime. He wished he had not dived so deep. … Then his eyes suddenly stabbed him with pain and the beach of Eilean a Fhraoich disappeared, and the sun and the sky and the dancing sea. All was black now, with a pin-point of light which was not the sun.

"Ye struck him over hard, Ben," a voice said.

"Never you fear," came the answer. "I know the stout pretty heads of these Scotchmen." He waved the light over his face. "See, he is coming round already."

Alastair would have liked to speak, for he was worried about Eilean a Fhraoich and the smell in his nose was overpowering. But as his voice struggled to emerge it woke a deadly nausea, and he seemed to sink again down, down through cottony worlds of utter feebleness. …

His next conscious moment found him lying with his head propped up, while someone tried to open his lips with a spoon and pour hot liquid between them. The stuff burned his throat but did not sicken him. He moved himself to take it better and discovered that the slightest motion shot a flight of arrows through his head, arrows of an intolerable pain. So he kept very still, only opening his eyes by slow degrees. It was very dark, but there was a tiny light somewhere which showed a hand and arm moving from a bowl to his mouth and back again. … He began to piece his surroundings together. He was indoors somewhere and someone was feeding him, but beyond that he could tell nothing, so he slipped back into sleep.

After that he began to come again more frequently to the world, and the pain in his head and eyes bothered him less. He knew when meal-time came, for it was preceded by a dazzling brightness (which was daylight through the open door) and attended by a lesser light, which was a stable lantern. Slowly he began to reason and observe, and work his way back till he saw suddenly in his mind's eye the outside of the hut, and could remember the last waking moment. Then he heard a man's voice which woke a chord in his memory, and further bits of the past emerged. Soon he reached a stage when in a flood the whole story of his journeys and perplexities rolled back into his mind, and he grew sick again with a worse kind of nausea. Still he could not quite recapture the link; he saw everything up to a certain noon, and realised the dim world which now enveloped him, but he could not find the archway between the two. Then one day the hand that brought his food left the door wide open, and in the light of it he saw a dark gypsy-looking fellow who smiled impishly but not malevolently.

"No ill will, dear pretty gentleman," he whined. "You knew too much and were proving too inquisitive, so them as I obeys bade me put you to sleep for a tidy bit. No harm is meant you, so eat your pretty dinner and say your pretty prayers and go beddie-bye like a good little master. You're picking up strength like a cub fox."

Alastair saw again the dim door of the hut, felt the musty darkness, and the fiery pain that seemed to rend his skull. Now he had the tale complete.

The gypsy left him to feed himself, which was achieved at the expense of spilling a third of the soup. He sat on a pile of ash poles, swinging his legs, and preening himself like a jay.

"Ben was too clever for you, my dainty gentleman. He was a-watching for you days back, and when you was a-creeping belly-flat Ben was never a dozen yards behind you. He was in the wood above the stable that morning when you arrived, and 'twas him as arranged the play about the Shaw Hut with old Bennet. Not but what you had a pretty notion of travelling, my dear, and nimble legs to you. I owed you one for the day with Oglethorpe's soldiers and I paid it that morning at the Flambury meet. Now you owes me one for this device, and I'm waiting to pay it. All for a bit of sport is Ben."

Alastair let him brag and asked him but the one question. "How long have I been here?"

"Nineteen days," said the gypsy. "This is now the second day of December."

The news would have put the young man into a fever had his wits been strong enough to grasp its full meaning. As it was, he only felt hazily that things had gone very ill with him, without any impulse to take the wheel from Destiny's hand and turn it back.

All morning he drowsed. He was not uncomfortable, for he had a bed of bracken and rushes and sufficient blankets for the mild winter weather. An old woman, the wife of the butler, brought water and bathed his head daily, and the food, which was soup or stew of game, was good and sufficient. That day for the first time he felt his strength returning, and as the hours passed restlessness grew on him. It was increased by an incident which happened in the afternoon. He was awakened from a doze by the sound of steps and voices without. Two people were walking there, and since there were interstices between the logs of the wall it was possible to overhear their conversation.

Said one, a female voice, "He left Manchester two days ago?"

"Two days ago, St Andrew's Day," was the reply, "and therefore a day of happy omen for a Scot."

"So in two days he will be in D-derby."

That stammer he would have known in the babble of a thousand tongues. The other—who could he be but her husband, and the man they spoke of but the Prince?

A hand was laid on the latch and the door shook. Then a key was inserted and the lock turned. Alastair lay very quiet, but below his eyelids he saw the oblong of light blocked by a figure. That figure turned in profile the better to look at him, and he saw a sharp nose.

"He is asleep," said the man to his companion without. "He has been sick, for there was a sharp scuffle before he was taken, but now he is mending. Better for him, poor devil, had he died!"

"Oh, Jack, what will they do with him?"

"That is for His Highness to decide. A traitor's death, at any rate. He may get the benefit of his French commission and be shot, or he may swing like better men in hemp."

The other voice was quivering and anxious. "I cannot credit it. Oh, Jack, I am convinced that there is error somewhere. He may yet clear himself."

"Tut, the man was caught in open treason, intercepting messages from the West and handing them to the Government. His lies to you prove his guilt. He professed to be hastening to the Prince, and he is taken here crouching in a wood fifty miles from his road, but conveniently near General Ligonier and the Duke of Kingston."

The door was shut and the key turned, but not before Alastair heard what he took for a sigh.

There was no sleep for him that night. His head had cleared, his blood ran easily again, the strength had come back to his limbs, and every nerve in him was strung to a passion of anger. His fury was so great that it kept him calm. Most desperately had things miscarried. The Prince was on the threshold of the English midlands, and all these weeks Kyd and Norreys had been at their rogueries unchecked. Where were the western levies now? What devil's noose awaited the northern army, marching into snares laid by its own professed allies? Worse, if worse were possible, the blame would be laid on him; Norreys and Kyd had so arranged it that he would pass as traitor; doubtless they had their cooked evidence in waiting. And in the dear eyes of the lady he was guilty, her gentle heart wept for his shame. At the memory of her voice, as it had made its last protest, he could have beaten his head on the ground.

His bonds had always been light—a long chain with a padlock clasping his left ankle and fastened to a joist of the hut—for his captors trusted to the strength of the walls and his frail condition. During the night he worked at this and managed so to weaken one of the links that he thought he could break it at will. But the morning brought him a bitter disappointment. Some fresh orders must have been issued, for Gypsy Ben produced new fetters of a more formidable type, which bound Alastair to a narrow radius of movement. As a make-weight he did not lock the door, but left it ajar. "You're like me, gentleman dear," he said; "you like the sky over you and to hear birds talking round about. I can humour you in that, if you don't mind a shorter tether."

It was a fine morning, the third of December, with a loud frolicking wind and clouds that sailed in convoys. In black depression of heart Alastair watched the tiny half-moon of landscape vouchsafed to him, three yards of glade, a clump of hazels, the scarred grey bole of an ancient oak. He had toiled at his bonds till every muscle was wrung, and he had not moved a link or coupling one fraction of an inch. Breathless, furious, despairing, he watched a pert robin approaching the door in jerks, when the bird rose startled at someone's approach. Alastair, lifting dreary eyes, saw the homely countenance of Edom.

The man cried out, and stood staring.

"Guid sake, sir, is this the way of it? I heard that something ill had happened to ye, but I never jaloused this."

Hungry eyes read the speaker's face, and saw nothing there but honest perplexity.

"They have invented a lie," Alastair said, "and call me a traitor. Do you believe it?"

"Havers," said Edom cheerfully. "They never telled me that, or they'd have got the lee in their chafts. Whae said it? Yon lang wersh lad they ca' Sir John?"

"Is your master here?"

"He's comin' the morn and I'm michty glad o't. For three weeks I've been like a coo in an unco loan. But, Captain Maclean, sir, I'm wae for you, sittin' sae gash and waefu' in this auld bourock."

Alastair's eyes had never left Edom's face, and suddenly his mind was made up. He resolved to trust everything to this man's honesty.

"You can help me if you will. Can I count on you?"

"If it's onything reasonably possible," said the cautious Edom.

"I need friends. I want you to summon them."

"I'll be blithe to do that."

"You know the country round and the inns?"

"I've traivelled the feck o't on my twae feet and sampled the maist o' the publics."

"Then find a cross-roads which has broom on the signpost or an inn with an open eye painted under the sign. Whistle this air," and he hummed Midwinter's ditty.

Edom made a tolerable attempt at it. "I mind ye whustled that when we were huntit i' the big wud. And after that?"

"Someone will come to you and ask your errand. Tell him of my plight and direct him or guide him here."

Edom nodded, and without more ado turned and swung out for the river-bridge and the high-road.