Midwinter/Chapter 14

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XIV

DUCHESS KITTY ON THE ROAD

Five hours' sleep were not enough to rest his body, but they were all that his unquiet mind would permit. He woke to a sense of great weariness combined with a feverish impulse to drive himself to the last limits of his strength. His limbs were desperately stiff, and at his first attempt to rise he rolled over. A bed had been made for him in the attic of the farm, and the view from the window showed only the benty shoulder of a hill. Slowly the doings of the night came back to him; from the bowels of the earth he seemed to hear the mutterings of Journeyman John, and he crawled down the trap-ladder in a fret to escape from the place of horror.

In the kitchen the Spainneach was cooking eggs in a pan, smiling and crooning to himself as if the morning and the world were good. He put Alastair in a chair and fed him tenderly, beating up an egg in a cup with French brandy.

"Have that for your morning's draught, Sir Sandy," he said. "You are with your friends now, so let your anxieties sleep."

"They cannot," said the young man. "I have lost weeks of precious time. My grief! but I have been the broken reed to lean on! And the Prince is in this very shire."

"To-night he will lie in Derby. Lord George Murray has led a column in advance to Congleton and the Duke of Kingston has fled back to Lichfield. His Grace of Newcastle has sent offers to the Prince. All goes well, heart's darling. Your friends have given Cumberland the slip and are on the straight road to London."

The news stirred his languid blood.

"But the West," he cried. "What news of the West—of Barrymore and Sir Watkin and Beaufort? There is the rub." And with the speaking of the words the whole story of the past weeks unrolled itself clear and he dropped his head into his hands and groaned. Then he staggered to his feet.

"There is a man reaches Brightwell this day. He must be seized—him and his papers." Swiftly he told the story of Kyd. "Let me lay hands on him and I will extort the truth though I have to roast him naked, and that truth the Prince must have before a man of us sleep. It is the magic key that will unlock St James's. Have you men to lend me?"

The Spainneach smiled. "Last night they tracked you, as few men in England could, and they were here to overpower the rascaldom that held the door. Now they are scattered, but I have a call to pipe them back like curlews. The Spoonbills are at your back, Sir Sandy."

"Then for God's sake let us be going," Alastair cried. "Have you a horse for me, for my legs are like broomshanks?"

"Two are saddled and waiting outbye. But first I have a little errand to fulfil, which the Master charged on me."

From a shed he brought armfuls of hay and straw and piled them in a corner where the joists of the roof came low and the thatch could be reached by a man's hand. Into the dry mass he flung a smouldering sod from the fire. As Alastair, stiffly feeling his stirrups, passed between the dry-stone gateposts, he heard a roaring behind him, and, turning, saw flames licking the roof.

"Presently Journeyman John will lie bare to the heavens," said the Spainneach, "and the wayfaring man, though a fool, will understand. Brightwell is your goal, Sir Sandy? 'Tis fifteen moorland miles."

"First let us go to the Sleeping Deer," was the answer. "I have a beard weeks old, and my costume is not my own. Please God, this day I am going into good society and have a high duty to perform, so I would be decently attired."

The Spainneach laughed. "Still your old self. You were always for the thing done in order. But for this Kyd of yours—he comes to Brightwell to-day, and may depart again, before you take order with him. It is desirable that he be detained?"

"By God, he shall never go," cried Alastair.

"The Spoonbills do not fight, but they can make a hedge about a man, and they can bring us news of him."

So at a grey cottage in the winding of a glen the Spainneach turned aside, telling Alastair that he would overtake him, and when he caught him up his face was content. "Mr. Kyd will not enter Brightwell unknown to us," he said, "and he will assuredly not leave it."

The day had been bright in the morning, but ere they descended from the high moors to the wider valleys the wind had veered to the north, and a cold mist had blown up, which seemed a precursor of storm. Rain fell heavily and then cleared, leaving a windy sky patched with blue and ruffled with sleet blasts. The tonic weather did much to refresh Alastair's body, and to add fuel, if that were possible, to the fire in his brain. He knew that he was living and moving solely on the passion in his spirit, for his limbs were fit only for blankets and sleep. When his horse stumbled or leaned on the bit he realised that the strength had gone out of his arms. But his mind amazed him by its ardour of resolution, as if all the anxieties of the past week had been fused into one white-hot fury. … So far the Prince had not failed, and these forced marches which would place him between Cumberland and the capital were surely proof of undivided counsels. Perhaps he had news of the West after all. There was his own letter to Lochiel—but in that he had promised proofs at Derby, and this day the Prince would be in Derby and would not find him.

"You have seen His Highness?" he asked the Spainneach.

"At Manchester, for a brief minute, surrounded by white cockades."

"How did he look?"

"Sad and reflective—like a man who has staked much against odds and does not greatly hope."

It was the picture he had made in his own mind. But by Heaven he would change it, and bring a sparkle again to those eyes and the flush of hope to that noble brow. … For weeks no news could have reached the camp from the West, for Kyd would have passed it to Norreys and Norreys to one of the Whig Dukes in Nottinghamshire, and if the levies had marched from Wales the Government had had ample warning to intercept them. … Probably they had not started, for Kyd could no doubt counterfeit orders from the Prince. But the point was that they were there—men, armed men, and money—ready and eager for the field. His thoughts were drawing to a point now, and he realised what had been the vague fear that so long had tormented him. It was that the Prince would lose heart—nay, not he, but his Council, and instead of striking for St James's, fall back to a defensive war inside the Scottish Border. That way lay destruction, slow or speedy—with England unconverted and France uncommitted. But the bold road, the true road, would bring France and England to their side, and strike terror to the heart of their already perplexed enemy. Tower Hill or St James's! Would to God he was now by the Prince's side, instead of Lord George with his slow Atholl drawl, or the Secretary Murray, fussy and spluttering and chicken-hearted, or the Teagues, whose boldness was that of kerns and only made the others more cautious. At the thought of his Prince's haggard face he groaned aloud.

But, please God, it was still in his power to find the remedy, and by evening the peril might be past. He spurred his horse at the thought, and, since the beasts were fresh and they were now on the good turf of the vales, the miles flew fast, and they rode out of sleet showers into sun. To his surprise he found that his attitude to Kyd had changed. He loathed the man and longed to crush him, but it was as a vile creeping thing and not as a personal enemy. But against Sir John Norreys he felt a furious hatred. The thing was illogical—to hate a tool rather than the principal, the more as Norreys had done him no personal ill, while Kyd had connived at his death. But had the two been on the sward before him with drawn swords he could have left the laird of Grey houses to the Spainneach and taken the baronet for himself. Why? His heart inexorably gave the answer. The man was the husband of the russet lady; to her ears he had lied, and with his lies drawn a moan of pity from her gentle lips. For Sir John Norreys, Alastair reserved a peculiar vengeance. Kyd might fall to a file of the Prince's muskets, but Norreys must die before the cold point of his own steel. And then … ? Claudia would be a free woman—sorrowful, disillusioned, shamefaced, but still a child with the world before her, a white page on which love could yet write a happy tale.

They skirted the little hill on which Alastair had stood with Midwinter, and came to the high-road and the door of the Sleeping Deer. There was now no need of back stairs, and Alastair, giving up his horse to an ostler, boldly entered the hall and made for the landlord's sanctum. But an elegant travelling trunk caught his eye, its leather bearing the blazon of a crowned heart, and by the fire a lackey in a red-and-blue livery was warming himself. A glance through the open door of the stable-yard revealed more red and blue, and a fine coach which three stable-boys were washing. The landlord was not in his room, but in the kitchen, superintending the slicing of hams, the plucking of pullets and the spicing of great tankards of ale. At the sight of Alastair he started, called another to take his place at the table and beckoned him out-of-doors.

"I'm joyful to see ye again, for I feared ye had come by foul play. That Scotch serving-man was here seeking ye more than once, and"—lowering his voice—"word came from the Spoonbills, and you not here to answer, and me not knowing where in hell or Derbyshire ye had got to. Ye've happened on a rare to-do at the Sleeping Deer. Her right honourable Grace, the Duchess of Queensberry, has come here to lie the night, before journeying down into the West country. She has been at Chatsworth, but the gentles is all a-fleeing south now, for fear of the wild Highlandmen. Duke William himself escorted her here, and that pretty lad, his eldest son, the Lord Hartington, and dinner is ordered for three, and my wife's like to fire the roof with perplexity. Ye'll be for your old room, doubtless. It's been kept tidy against your return, and I'll see that a bite of dinner is sent up to ye, when Her Grace is served."

The Spainneach had disappeared, so Alastair mounted to his attic and set about the long process of his toilet. His cramped fingers made a slow business of shaving, but at last his chin and cheeks were smooth, and the mirror showed a face he recognized, albeit a face hollow in the cheeks and dark about the eyes. As his dressing proceeded his self-respect stole back; the fresh-starched shirt, the well-ironed cravat, were an assurance that he had returned from savagery. By the time he had finished he felt his bodily health improved, and knew the rudiments of an appetite. The meal and the glass of brandy which the landlord brought him assisted his transformation, and he seemed to breathe again without a burden on his chest. He had bidden the landlord look out for the Spainneach, and meantime he had an errand to do on his own account; for it occurred to him that the arrival of the Duchess Kitty was the solution of one perplexity.

He walked through the store-closet to the landing above the staircase. At the half-opened door of the Brown Room stood a footman in the Queensberry colours, one who had been with his mistress at Cornbury and recognized Alastair. He bowed and let him pass; indeed he would have pushed the door wide for him had not the young man halted on the threshold. There were voices inside the room, and one of them had a familiar sound.

The sight which greeted his eyes made him shut the door firmly behind him. Duchess Kitty, still wearing the cloak of grey fur and the velvet mittens which had kept her warm in the coach, sat in the chair which Claudia had once sat in, one little foot on the hearth-stone, the other tapping impatiently on the hearth-rug. On a table lay the remains of a meal, and beside it, balancing himself with one large hand among the platters, stood Mr. Samuel Johnson. It was not the Mr. Johnson to whom he had bade farewell three weeks ago, but rather the distraught usher who had made the midnight raid on Cornbury. His dress was the extreme of shabbiness, his hair was in disorder, his rusty small clothes and coarse stockings were splashed with mud; and he seemed to be famished, too, for his cheeks were hollow, and for all his distress, he could not keep his eyes from straying towards the table.

"I beseech your Grace to remember your common womanhood," he was saying when Alastair's entrance diverted the Duchess's attention.

She recognized him, and a look which was almost alarm crossed her face.

"Here enters the first of the conquerors," she cried, and swept him a curtsey. "What is the latest news from the seat of war? My woman tells me that the Prince is already in Bedfordshire and that London is ablaze and King George fled to Holland. Your news, Captain Maclean?"

"I have none, madam. I have been no nearer the Prince's camp than I am at this moment."

Her eyes opened wide. "Faith, you have dallied long in the South. Have you been sick, or is Beaufort's conscience a tender plant? Or did you return to Cornbury?" Her face had grown stern.

"I left Cornbury on the day you remember, and I have not since seen my lord, your brother."

"That is well," she said, with an air of relief. "I ask no further questions lest they embarrass you. But you are come opportunely, for you can give me counsel. This gentleman," and she turned to Johnson, "has forced his company upon me, and, when you arrived, had embarked upon a monstrous tale. He bespeaks my pity, so I have composed myself to listen."

"The gentleman and I are acquainted, and I can vouch for his honesty. Nay, madam, I have a fancy that his errand is also mine."

She looked curiously from one to the other, as Johnson, rolling his head like a marionette, seized Alastair's hand. "It is the mercy of God, sir, that you have returned," the tutor cried. "I have missed you sorely, for that house of Brightwell is no better than a prison. Its master is aged and bedridden and demented, and it is governed by two malevolent spinsters. Brightwell! Bridewell is its true name. I myself have eaten little and slept bare, but that matters nothing. It is my poor lady I grieve for. 'Tis true, she has her husband, but he is little at home, and is much engrossed with affairs. Soon, too, he will ride south with his Prince, and Miss Claudia cannot travel with him nor can she be left behind in that ill-omened den. She must have a woman to befriend her in these rough days, and conduct her to Chastlecote or Weston, but she has few female friends of her rank and I knew not where to turn. But to-day, walking on the high-road, I saw an equipage and learned that it was Her Grace travelling south, and that she would lie at this inn. So I ran hither like a Covent-garden porter, and have been admitted to her presence, though my appearance is not so polite as I could have desired." He bowed to the Duchess, and in his clumsiness swept her travelling-mask from the table to the floor.

She looked at him for a little without speaking, and then fixed her eyes on Alastair, those large childlike eyes which were rarely without a spark of impish humour.

"Your friend," she said, "has already opened his tale to me, but his manner of telling it is not of the clearest. Since you say that his errand may be yours, I pray you expound it. But be seated, gentlemen both. I have already a crick in my neck from looking up to such enormities."

Mr. Johnson, as if glad of the permission, dropped into a chair, but Alastair remained standing. His legs no longer felt crazy, but they were amazingly stiff, and once in a chair he distrusted his ability to rise. He stood at the opposite side of the hearth to the Duchess, looking down on the elfin figure, as pretty as porcelain in the glow of firelight.

"I do not ask your politics," he said, "which I take to be your husband's. But you are an honourable lady, by the consent of all, and, I can add of my own knowledge, a kind one. To you a traitor must be doubly repulsive."

Her answer was what Claudia Norreys's had been in that very room.

"You judge rightly, sir. If I thought I could betray a friend or a cause I should hang myself forthwith to avert the calamity."

Alastair bowed. "Mr. Johnson has told you of this girl, my lady Norreys. She is own sister to you, tender and brave and infinitely faithful. Her husband is otherwise. Her husband is a black traitor, but she does not know it."

Mr. Johnson cried out. "I had thought better of him, sir. Have you got new evidence?"

"I have full evidence. News of desperate import is sent to him here by another in the South, that other being one of the foremost agents of our Cause. That news should go forthwith to the Prince's camp. It goes forthwith to the enemy's."

"For what reward?" the Duchess asked.

"For that reward which is usual to traitors in times of civil strife. They induce honest but weak-kneed souls to take a bold step, and then betray them to the Government, receiving a share of the fines and penalties that ensue. Great fortunes have been built that way."

"But if the rebellion wins?"

"Then they are lost, unless indeed they are skilful enough to make provision with both sides and to bury whichever of the two villainies is unprofitable."

"He is a young man," she said. "He shows a shocking precocity in guile. And the poor child his wife dreams nothing of this?"

"Ah, madam," cried Johnson. "She is the very soul and flower of loyalty. If she suspected but a tithe of it, her heart would break."

"His precocity is remarkable," said Alastair, "but he is not the principal in the business. The principal is that other I have mentioned who is in the very centre of the Prince's counsels."

She put her hands to her ears. "Do not tell me," she cried. "I will be burdened with no secrets that do not concern me. I take it that this other has not a wife whom you would have me befriend."

"Nevertheless I fear that I must outrage your ears, madam. This other is known to you—closely allied with you."

Her eyes were suddenly bright with anxiety.

"His name is Mr. Nicholas Kyd."

Her face showed relief; also incredulity.

"You are certain? You have proof?"

"I have long been certain. Before night I will have full proof."

She fell into a muse. "Kyd—the bluff honest bon enfant! The man of the sad old songs and ready pathos, who almost makes a Jacobite of me—Kyd to play the rogue! Faith, His Grace had better look into his accounts. What do you want of me, Captain Maclean?"

"Two things, madam. My purpose is to do justice on rogues, but justice is a cruel thing, and I would spare the lady. I want you to carry her southward with you, and leave her at Chastlecote or Weston, which you please, or carry her to Amesbury. She shall never know her husband's infamy—only that he has gone to the Prince, and when he does not return will think him honourably dead."

The Duchess nodded. "And the other?"

"I beg your presence when Mr. Kyd is confounded. He is on his way to Brightwell and this night will sleep there. His errand in the West is now done, and to-morrow, as I read it, he descends into Nottinghamshire to the Government headquarters to receive his reward. Therefore he will have papers with him, and in those papers I look for my proof. If they fail, I have other sources."

"And if he is found guilty, what punishment?"

Alastair shrugged his shoulders. "That is not for me. Both he and Norreys go bound to the Prince."

She brooded with her chin on her hand. Then she stood up, laughing.

"I consent. 'Twill be better than a play. But how will you set the stage?"

"I go to Brightwell presently, and shall force admission. My lady Norreys will keep her chamber, while in another part of the house we deal with grimmer business. I nominate you of our court of justice. See, we will fix an hour. Order your coach for six, and you will be at Brightwell by seven. By that time the house will be ours, and we shall be waiting to receive you. You will bring Mr. Johnson with you, and after that you can comfort the lady."

She nodded. "I will come masked," said she, "and I do swear that I will not fail you or betray you—by the graves of Durrisdeer I swear it, the ancient Douglas oath. Have you men enough? I can lend you two stout fellows."

"Your Grace has forgotten that you are a Whig," said Alastair, laughing.

"I have forgotten all save that I am trysted to a merry evening," she cried.

When Alastair returned to his attic he found the Spainneach.

"Your Kyd is nearing port," he said. "I have word that he slept at Blakeley and dined early at Little Laning. In two hours or less he will be at Brightwell."

"And the Spoonbills?"

"Await us there. Haste you, Sir Sandy, if you would arrive before your guest."