Midwinter/Chapter 13

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The hours passed slowly, for Alastair was in a ferment of hope and fear, into which like lightning-flashes in a dark sky shot now and then a passion of fury, as he remembered Claudia Norreys. He had not seen her as she stood outside the hut, but he could picture the sad disillusionment of her eyes, and the quiver of her mouth as she protested against a damning truth which she yet needs must believe. Her gentle voice sounded maddeningly in his ears. He could not forecast what his fate might be, he could not think settled thoughts, he could not plan; his mind was in that helplessness in which man falls back upon prayer.

The afternoon drew to a quiet sunset. The door of the hut remained open, and through it he saw the leafless knotted limbs of the oaks, which had before been a grey tracery against the smoky brown of the scrub, fire with gold and russet. There was no sign of Edom or his friends, but that at the best he could hardly hope for till late, there was no sign of his gaoler or of any living thing—he was left alone with the open door before him, and the strict fetters on his limbs. The sun sank, the oaks grew grey again, a shiver went through the earth as the night cold descended. The open space in the door had turned to ebony dark before there was a sound of steps.

It was Ben the Gypsy, and he had two others with him, whom Alastair could not see clearly in the light of the single lantern. The man seemed in high excitement.

"’Tis time to be stirring, pretty gentleman," he chirruped. "Hey for the high-road and the hills in the dark o' the moon, says I. No time for supper, neither, but there'll be a long feast and a fine feast where you're going. Up with him, Dick lad and Tony lad. I'm running no risks with the bonds of such a fiery fearless gentleman."

Two stalwart followers swung him in their arms, and marched down one of the glades, the gypsy with the lanthorn dancing before, like a will-o'-the-wisp. At the foot of the slope were horses, and on one of them—a ragged shelty—they set him, undoing his leg bonds, and fastening them again under the animal's belly. The seat was not uncomfortable, for he had his feet in stirrups of a sort, but it was impossible for him to escape. His hands they tied, and one of the party took the shelty's bridle.

The road ran up-hill, first through woods and then in a waste of bracken and heather and scree. Black despair was Alastair's portion. His enemies had triumphed, for even if Edom discovered some of Midwinter's folk, they would find the hut empty, and how could they trace him by night over such trackless country? His body as well as his heart was broken, for the sudden change from the inertia of the hut made every limb ache and set his head swimming. Soon he was so weary that he lost all count of the way. Dimly he was conscious that they descended into glens and climbed again to ridges, but the growing chill and greater force of the wind told him that they were steadily rising. Presently the wrack was blown off the face of the sky, the winter regiment of stars shone out, and in their faint radiance he saw all about him the dark fields of the hills. Often he thought himself fainting. Repeatedly he would have fallen, but for the belly girth, and more than once he bowed over his horse's neck in deep weariness. Ben the Gypsy spoke to him, but as he did not answer rode ahead, with his lantern bobbing like a ship's riding light in a gusty harbour.

Then Alastair fell asleep, and was tortured by nightmares. Indeed all the latter part of the journey was a nightmare, sleeping and waking, for it was a steady anguish, half muffled by a sense of crazy unreality. When the party stopped at last, he came back from caverns of confused misery, and when the belly-girth was cut fell leadenly to the ground. The ride in an unnatural position had given him a violent cramp in his right leg, and the sharp pain woke him to clear consciousness. He was picked up and carried inside some building, and as he crossed the threshold had a vision of steep walls of cliff all about him.

After that he must have slept, for when he next remembered he was lying on a settle before a fire of peat and heather-roots, and, watching him through the smoke, sat Gypsy Ben, whittling a stick with a long, fine shagreen-handled knife.

"Feeling happier now?" the gypsy asked. "Soon it will be supper time and after that the soft bed and the long sleep, my darling dear. Ben's are the kind hands."

Something in the voice made Alastair shake off his torpor. The gypsy, as he first remembered him, had been a mischievous sneering fellow, and he had longed to wring his neck when he rode off grinning that day at the Flambury Hunt. In the hut he had been almost friendly, protesting that he bore no malice but only obeyed orders. But now—there was something bright and mad about those dark dancing eyes, something ghoulish in the soft gloating voice. Had his orders been changed? What plan of his foes was served by bringing him thus into this no-man's-land of the hills?

"Why am I here?" he asked, and his tongue so stumbled between his dry lips that the gypsy passed him a jug of ale that was being kept warm by the fire.

"Orders, kind precious sir. Them that I obeys has changed their mind about you, and thinks you are too dear and good for this wicked, wicked world. Therefore they hands you over to Gypsy Ben, who brings you the straight way to Journeyman John."

The other looked puzzled, and the gypsy rose and, dancing to a far end of the room, opened a large rough door like a partition in a cowshed. Instantly a great gust swept the place, driving clouds of fine dust from the hearth. A noise came from that darkness beyond the door, a steady rumbling and grinding which had been a mere undercurrent of sound when the door was shut, but now dominated the place—a sound like mill-stones working under a full press of water, joined with a curious shuddering like wind in an old garret. The gypsy stood entranced, one hand to his ear, his eyes glittering.

"That's him we call Journeyman John. Hark to him grinding his old teeth! Ah, John, hungry again! But cheer up, there's a fine supper a-coming."

He shut the door as a showman shuts a cage. The light died out of his eyes, leaving only smouldering fires.

"That's the deepest pot-hole in all the land," he said, "and John like a scaly serpent lies coiled at the foot of it. Nothing that goes in there comes out—leastways only in threads and buttons by way of Eldingill, and that long after. There's your bed made for you, master, and it's Ben's duty to tuck you in. Oh, Ben's a kind mammy."

The young man's brain had been slow to grasp the fate prepared for him, but the crazy leer which accompanied the last words brought a hideous illumination, and at the same time the faintest ray of hope. The man was clearly a madman, and therefore incalculable. With a great effort Alastair steeled his heart and composed his voice.

"What of supper?" he asked. "That comes before bed in a hospitable house."

The gypsy laughed like a magpie, high and harsh. "Supper be it!" he cried, "and a good one, for John is a generous host. Hey, Bobadilla!"

An old woman answered his cry and proceeded to lay on the table plates and glasses, a platter of bread and the end of a cheese. Presently she came back with a great dish of frizzling eggs and fried ham. The gypsy lifted the jug of ale from the fireside, and drew in a chair to the board.

"Mammy will feed her pretty chick," he said, "for the chick's claws are too dangerous to loose."

Alastair's heart had ceased fluttering, and an immense composure had settled upon him. He had even an appetite, and was able to swallow the portion of eggs and ham which the gypsy conveyed to his mouth on the end of his knife. The ale was most welcome, for his thirst was fierce, and the warmth and the spice of it recalled his bodily strength. By now he was recovering a manlier resolution. He was a soldier and had faced death often, though never in so gruesome a form. If it were the end, so let it be, but he would not abandon hope while breath was in his body. He even forced himself to a laugh.

"Tell me of this Journeyman John," he asked. "What house is this that he lurks behind?"

"A poor farm called Pennycross, with no neighbour nearer than six miles. Goody Lugg is the farmer, a worthy widow who looks after a cow and a dozen wethers and leaves the care of John to Ben and his friends. Mighty convenient fellow is John to keep in a neighbourhood. If a girl would be quit of a love-child or a wife of a stepson they come to Ben to do their business. Ay, pretty sir, and John has had dainty meat. Listen," and he thrust his face close to Alastair. "I have done a job or two for Lord Dash and Lord Mash—naming no names, as being against my sworn oath—when they were in trouble with petticoats no longer wanted. And before my time there was the young heir of Crokover—you've heard that tale. Ay, ay, the Journeyman does his work swift and clean and lasting and keeps mum!"

"Who paid you to bring me here?"

The gypsy grinned cunningly. "Since I swore no oaths and you'll never live to peach, you shall hear. Down in Brightwell live two grey she-corbies. 'Twas them gave Ben the office."

"No other?"

"No other except a red-faced Scot that rides the roads like a packman. Him I have not seen for weeks, but the corbies in Brightwell work to his bidding. All three love the bright yellow gold."

"Sir John Norreys had a part in it?"

"Nay, nay, pretty sir. Sir John, brave gentleman, was privy to your capture and imprisonment, but he knows nothing of this night's work. He is too young and raw for so rare a thing as my John."

"You are paid well, I fancy. What if I were to pay you better to let me go?"

"What you have is already mine," said the gypsy.

"A large sum will be brought you in twelve hours if you will let me send a message, and as proof of good faith I will remain here in your power till it is paid."

The gypsy's eye glittered with what was not greed.

"Though you filled my hat with guineas, my darling, I would not let you go. John is hungry, for it is long since he tasted proper meat, and I have promised him that to-night he shall sup. I have whispered it in his great ear, and he has purred happily like a cat. Think you I would disappoint John? Do not fear, pretty sir. It is midwinter and the world is cold, and full of hard folks and wan cheeks and pinched bellies. But down with John there is deep sleep and it is sunny and warm, for the fires of Hell burn next door. Nay, nay, John is not the Devil, but only a cousin on the spindle side."

In spite of his resolution Alastair felt his blood chilling as the gypsy babbled. Hope had grown very faint, for what could he do, manacled as he was, in a struggle against a lithe and powerful madman, who could call in the other companions of the night to help him? The undercurrent of sound seemed to be growing louder, and the wooden partition shook a little with the reverberation. How many minutes would pass before he was falling into that pit of echoing darkness!

"When does John sup?" he asked.

"When he calls for supper," was the answer. "At a certain hour each night the noise of his grinding becomes louder. Hark, it is beginning now. In less than half an hour he will speak. … You have a ring on your finger, a pretty ring—give it to Ben that it may remind him of a happy night and a sweet gentleman."

"Why do you ask for it when I am in your power, and it is yours for the taking?"

"Because a thing gifted is better than a thing taken. Plunder a man must sell, but a gift he can wear. If I had a dead man's hat on my head took from his body, it would be crying out in my ears, but if he had kindly given it me, it would fit well and hold its peace. I want that ring that I may wear it and kiss it and call to mind my darling dear."

The gypsy seized the hand and peered at the ring, a heavy jasper cut with the crest of Morvern, a tower embattled.

"Set free my hands, then, and I will give it you," said Alastair.

The gypsy grinned cunningly. "And risk your strong fingers at my throat, my pretty one. Nay, nay. Just say the words, 'I gift my ring freely and lovingly to Gypsy Ben,' and hark to the service I will do you. With my own hand I will cut your pretty throat, and save you the cruel fall down, down into the darkness. Most gentlemen fear that more than death. 'Tis unfair to the Journeyman, for he's no raven that can put up with dead carrion, but a peregrine who kills what he eats. But for this once he will pardon his servant Ben. Say the words, gentleman dear. See, it is getting very close on supper time and John is crying out."

He lifted his hand, an eldritch and evil figure, and sure enough the noise of the grinding had risen till it was like a storm in the night. The wooden partition and the windows at the far side of the room rattled violently and the whole place, roof, walls and rafters, shuddered. In a tumult a small sound pitched in a different key will sometimes make itself heard, and on Alastair's ear there fell something like a human voice. It may have been fancy, but, though he had abandoned hope, it encouraged him to play for time.

"I do not fear the darkness," he said, "or death in the darkness. But it is a notion of my family to die in the daylight. I will gladly speak the words which gift you the ring if you will let me live till dawn. It cannot be far distant."

The gypsy took from his fob a vast old silver watch. "Nay, sir, not till daybreak, which is still four hours distant. But John shall wait for one half-hour on his supper, and he cannot complain, for he will have the killing of it himself. Take your pleasure, then, for thirty minutes by this clock which Ben had of the Miller of Bryston before he was hanged at Derby. What shall we do to make the moments go merrily? Shall Ben sing to you, who soon will be singing with angels?"

The gypsy was on his feet now, his face twitching with excitement and his eyes like two coals. He skipped on the table and cut a step.

"You shall see the Gallows Jig, darling mine, which goes to the tune of 'Fairladies.’"

With grace and skill he threaded his way among the dishes on the stout oaken board, showing a lightness of foot amazing in one wearing heavy riding-boots.

"Bravo," cried Alastair. "If I were unshackled I would give you the sword-dance as we dance it in the Highlands." If the maniac could be absorbed in dance and song he might forget the passage of time. Somehow the young man believed that with daylight he would have a chance of salvation.

The gypsy leaped from the table, and took a long pull at the ale jug.

"Sing in turn or sing in chorus," he cried. "Raise a ditty, precious gentleman."

Alastair's dry throat produced a stave of Desportes—a love song which he had last heard at a fête champêtre at Fontainebleau. The gypsy approved and bellowed a drinking catch. Then to Alastair's surprise he lowered his voice and sang very sweetly and truly the song of "Diana." The delicate air, with the fragrance of the wildwood in it, pierced Alastair like a sword. He remembered it as Midwinter had sung it—as Claudia Norreys had crooned it, one foot beating time by the hearth and the glow of firelight on her slim body. It roused in him a new daring and a passionate desire to live. He saw, by a glance at the watch which lay on the table, that the half-hour had already been exceeded.

"Nobly sung," he cried. "Where got you that song?"

"Once I heard a pretty lady chant it as she walked in a garden. And I have heard children sing it far away from here—and long, long ago."

The man's craziness had ebbed a little, and he was staring into the fire. Alastair, determined that he should not look at the watch, coaxed him to sing again, and praised his music, and, when he did not respond, himself sang—for this new mood had brought back his voice—a gypsy lay of his own land, a catch of the wandering Macadams that trail up and down the sea-coast. Gentle and soothing it was, with fairy music in it, which the Good Folk pipe round the sheilings on the July eves. Ben beat time to it with his hand, and after it sang "Colin on a summer day" with a chorus that imitated very prettily a tabor accompaniment. … Alastair's glance at the watch told him that more than an hour had passed, and he realised, too, that the noise of the Journeyman was dying down.

"Your turn," said the gypsy, who had let his legs sprawl toward the fire, and seemed like one about to go to sleep.

An unlucky inspiration came to the young man. He broke into the song of "The Naked Men" and he let his voice ring out so that the thing might have been heard outside the dwelling. For a moment the gypsy did not seem to hear; then he frowned, as if an unpleasant memory were aroused; then suddenly he woke to full consciousness.

"Hell and damnation!" he cried. "What warlock taught you that? Stop the cursed thing," and he struck the singer in the face.

Then his eye saw the watch, and his ear caught the cessation of the Journeyman's grinding. His madness flared up again, he forgot all about the ring, and he leaped upon the prisoner like a wild-cat. He dragged him, helpless as he was, from the settle and flung him across the table, sending the remains of supper crashing to the floor. Then he left him, rushed to the wooden partition, and tore it apart. From the black pit thus revealed a thin grey vapour seemed to ascend, and the noise was like the snarling of hounds in kennel.

"John is hungry," he cried. "I have kept you waiting, my darling, but your meat is ready," and he was back clutching his prisoner's middle.

The despair and apathy of the earlier hours had gone, and Alastair steeled himself to fight for his life. The gypsy's strength was always respectable and now his mania made it prepotent. The young man managed to get his manacled ankles crooked in a leg of the table, but they were plucked away with a dislocating wrench. His head grated on the floor as he was dragged towards the pit. And then he saw a chance, for the rope that bound his wrists caught in a staple fixed in the floor, apparently to make an anchorage for a chain that had worked an ancient windlass. The gypsy pulled savagely, but the good hemp held, and he was forced to drop the body and examine the obstacle. Alastair noted that beyond the pit was a naked dripping wall of cliff, and that the space between the edge and the walls of the shed inclined downward, so that anything that once reached that slope would be easily rolled into the abyss. Death was very near him and yet he could not despair. He lifted up his voice in a great shout for help. A thousand echoes rang in the pit, and following on them came the gypsy's crazy cackle.

"Do not fear, pretty darling. John's arms are soft bedding," and he dragged him over the lip of stone beyond which the slope ran to the darkness.

Once again by a miracle his foot caught. This time it was only a snag of rock, but it had a rough edge to it, and by the mercy of God, the bonds at his ankles had been already frayed. The gypsy, who had him by the shoulders and arms, tugged frantically, and the friction of the stone's edge severed the last strands. Suddenly Alastair found his ankles free, and with a desperate scramble tried to rise. But his feet were cramped and numb and he could not find a stand. A tug from the gypsy brought him to the very edge of the abyss. But the incident had wakened hope, and once again he made the vault ring with a cry for help.

It was answered. The dim place suddenly blazed with light, and there was a sound of men's voices. For an instant the gypsy loosed his hold to stare, and then with a scream resumed his efforts. But in that instant Alastair's feet had found on the very brink a crack of stone, which enabled him to brace his legs and resist. The thing was trivial and he could not hold out long, but the purchase was sufficient to prevent that last heave from hurling him into the void.

The gypsy seemed suddenly to change his mind. He let the young man's shoulders drop, so that he fell huddled by the edge, plucked the long shagreen-handled knife from his belt and struck at his neck. But the blow never fell. For in the same fraction of time something bright quivered through the air, and struck deep in his throat. The man gurgled, then grew limp like a sack, and dropped back on the ground. Then with a feeble clawing at the air he rolled over the brink, struck the side twice, and dropped till the noise of his fall was lost in the moaning of the measureless deep.

Alastair lay sick and trembling, not daring to move, for his heels were overhanging the void. A hand seized him, a strong hand; and though he cried out in terror it dragged him up the slope and into the room. … The intense glare stabbed his eyes and he had the same choking nausea as when he had been felled in the hut. Then he came suddenly out of the fit of horror and saw himself on the settle, ready to weep from weariness, but sane again and master of himself.

A dark friendly face was looking down at him.

"You may travel the world's roads for a hundred years," said the Spainneach, "and never be nearer death. I warned you, Sir Sandy. You have been overlong in the South."