Midwinter/Chapter 19

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XIX

RAMOTH-GILEAD

Three hours' hard riding should have brought them to the tail of the Highland army, but the horses were still in their stalls when the night fell. For, as he sat by the fire with Johnson, the latches of Alastair's strength were loosened and it fell from him. The clout on the head, the imperfect convalescence, the seasons of mental conflict and the many hours in the saddle had brought even his tough body to cracking-point. The room swam before his eyes, there was burning pain in his head, and dizziness and nausea made him collapse in his chair. Johnson and the hostess's son, a half-grown boy, carried him to bed, and all night he was in an ague—the return, perhaps, of the low fever which had followed his wound at Fontenoy. There was a buzzing in his brain which happily prevented thought, and next day, when the fever ebbed, he was so weak that his mind was content to be vacant. By such merciful interposition he escaped the bitterest pangs of reproach which would have followed his realization of failure.

The first afternoon Johnson sat with him, giving him vinegar and water to sip, and changing the cool cloths on his brow. Alastair was drifting aimlessly on the tide of weakness, seeing faces—Claudia, Kitty of Queensberry, Cornbury, very notably the handsome periwigged head of the King's Solicitor—like the stone statues in a garden. They had no cognisance of him, and he did not wish to attract their notice, for they belonged to a world that had vanished, and concerned him less than the figures on a stage. By and by his consciousness became clearer, and he was aware of a heartbreak that enveloped him like an atmosphere, a great cloud of grief that must shadow his path for ever. And yet there were rifts in it where light as from a spring sky broke through, and he found himself melting at times in a sad tenderness. He had lost tragically, but he had learned that there was more to prize than he had dreamed.

Johnson, his face like a bishop's, sat at the bed foot, saying nothing, but gazing at the sick man with the eyes of an old friendly dog. When Alastair was able to drink the gruel the hostess produced, the tutor considered that he must assist his recovery by sprightly conversation. But the honest man's soul had been so harassed in the past days that he found it hard to be jocose. He sprawled in his wooden chair, and the window which faced him revealed sundry rents in his small-clothes and the immense shabbiness of his coat. Alastair on his bed watched the heavy pitted features, the blinking eyes, the perpetually twitching hands with a certainty that never in his days had he seen a man so uncouth or so wholly to be loved; and, as he looked, he seemed to discern that in the broad brow and the noble head which was also to be revered.

The young man's gaze having after the fashion of sick folk fixed itself upon one spot, Johnson became conscious of it, and looked down on his disreputable garments with distaste not unmixed with humour.

"My clothes are old and sorry," he said. "I lament the fact, sir, for I am no lover of negligence in dress. A wise man dare not go under-dressed till he is of consequence enough to forbear carrying the badge of his rank upon his back. That is not my case, and I would fain be more decent in my habiliments, which do not properly become even my modest situation in life. But I confess that at the moment I have but two guineas, given me by my dear young lady, and I have destined them for another purpose than haberdashery."

What this purpose was appeared before the next evening. During the afternoon Johnson disappeared in company with the youth of the inn, and returned at the darkening with a face flushed and triumphant. Alastair, whose strength was reviving, was sitting up when the door opened to admit a deeply self-conscious figure.

It was Johnson in a second-hand riding-coat of blue camlet, cut somewhat in the military fashion, and in all likelihood once the property of some dashing yeoman. But that was only half of his new magnificence, for below the riding-coat, beneath his drab coat, and buckled above his waistcoat, was a great belt, and from the belt depended a long scabbard.

"I make you my compliments," said Alastair. "You have acquired a cloak."

"Nay, sir, but I have acquired a better thing. I have got me a sword."

He struggled with his skirts and after some difficulty drew from its sheath a heavy old-fashioned cut-and-thrust blade, of the broadsword type. With it he made a pass or two, and then brought it down in a sweep which narrowly missed the bedpost.

"Now am I armed against all enemies," he cried, stamping his foot. "If Polyphemus comes, have at his eye," and he lunged towards the window.

The mingled solemnity and triumph of his air checked Alastair's laughter. "This place is somewhat confined for sword-play," he said. "Put it up, and tell me where you discovered the relic."

"I purchased it this very afternoon, through the good offices of the lad below. There was an honest or indifferent honest fellow in the neighbourhood who sold me cloak, belt and sword for three half-guineas. It is an excellent weapon, and I trust to you, sir, to give me a lesson or two in its use."

He flung off the riding-coat, unbuckled the belt and sat himself in his accustomed chair.

"Two men are better than one on the roads," he said, "the more if both are armed. I would consult you, sir, on a point of honour. I have told you that I am reputably, though not highly born, and I have had a gentleman's education. I am confident that but for a single circumstance, no gentleman need scruple to cross swords with me or to draw his sword by my side. The single circumstance is this—I have reason to believe that a relative suffered death by hanging, though for what cause I do not know, since the man disappeared utterly and his end is only a matter of gossip. Yet I must take the supposition at its worst. Tell me, sir, does that unhappy connection in your view deprive me of the armigerous rights of a gentleman?"

This time Alastair did not forbear to smile.

"Why no, sir. In my own land, the gallows is reckoned an ornament to a pedigree, and it has been the end of many a promising slip of my own house. Indeed it is not unlikely to be the end of me. But why do you ask the question?"

"Because I purpose to go with you to the wars."

Johnson's face was as serious as a judge's, and his dull eyes had kindled with a kind of shamefaced ardour. The young man felt so strong a tide of affection rising in him for this uncouth crusader that he had to do violence to his own inclination in shaping his counsel.

"It cannot be, my dear sir," he cried. "I honour you, I love you, but I will not permit a futile sacrifice. Had England risen for our Prince, your aid would have been most heartily welcome, but now the war will be in Scotland, and I tell you it is as hopeless as a battle of a single kestrel against a mob of ravens. I fight in it, for that is my trade and duty; I have been bred to war, and it is the quarrel of my house and my race. But for you it is none of these things. You would be a stranger in a foreign strife. … Nay, sir, but you must listen to reason. You are a scholar and have your career to make in a far different world. God knows I would welcome your comradeship, for I respect your courage and I love your honest heart, but I cannot suffer you to ride to certain ruin. Gladly I accept your convoy, but you will stop short of Ramoth-Gilead."

The other's face was a heavy mask of disappointment. "I must be the judge of my own path," he said sullenly.

"But you will be guided in that judgment by one who knows better than you the certainties of the road. It is no part of a man's duty to walk aimlessly to death."

The last word seemed to make Johnson pause. But he recovered himself.

"I have counted the cost," he said. "I fear death, God knows, but not more than other men. I will be no stranger in your wars. I will change my name to MacIan, and be as fierce as any Highlander."

"It cannot be. What you told Midwinter is the truth. If you are not fitted by nature for Old England, still less are you fitted for our wild long-memoried North. You will go back to London, Mr. Johnson, and some day you will find fortune and happiness. You will marry some day …"

At the word Johnson's face grew very red, and he turned his eyes on the ground and rolled his head with an odd nervous motion.

"I have misled you," he said. "I have been married these ten years. My dear Tetty is now living in the vicinity of London. … I have not written to her for seven weeks. Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!"

He put his head in his hands and seemed to be absorbed in a passion of remorse.

"You must surely return to her," said Alastair gently.

Johnson raised his head. "I would not have you think that I had forgotten her. She has her own small fortune, which suffices for one, though scant enough for two. I earn so little that I am rather an encumbrance than an aid, and she is more prosperous in my absence."

"Yet she must miss you, and if you fall she will be widowed."

"True, true. I have no clearness in the matter. I will seek light in prayer and sleep." He marched from the room, leaving his new accoutrements lying neglected in a corner.

Next day Alastair was sufficiently recovered to travel, and the two set out shortly after daylight. The woman of the inn, who had been instructed by Midwinter, had counsel to give. The Ashbourne road was too dangerous, for already the pursuit had begun and patrols of Government horse were on the trail of the Highlanders; two gentlemen such as they might be taken for the tail of the rebels and suffer accordingly. She advised that the road should be followed by Chesterfield and the east side of the county, which would avoid the high hills of the Peak and bring them to Manchester and the Lancashire levels by an easier if a longer route. It was agreed that the two should pass as master and man—Mr. Andrew Watson, the coal-merchant of Newcastle, and his secretary.

The secretary, ere they started, drew his sword and fingered it lovingly. "I must tell you," he whispered to Alastair, "that the reflections of the night have not shaken my purpose. I am still resolved to accompany you to the wars."

But there was no gusto in his air. All that day among the shallow vales he hardly spoke, and now and then would groan lamentably. The weather was mist and driving rain, and the travellers' prospect was little beyond the puddles of the road and the wet glistening stone of the roadside dykes. That night they had risen into the hills, where the snow lay in the hollows and at the dyke-backs, and slept at a wretched hovel of a smithy on a bed of bracken. The smith, a fellow with a week's beard and red-rimmed eyes, gave the news of the place. The Scots, he had heard, had passed Macclesfield the night before, and all day the militia, horsed by the local squires, had been scouting the moors picking up breechless stragglers. He did not appear to suspect his sullen visitors, who proclaimed their hurry to reach Manchester on an errand of trade.

Thereafter to both men the journey was a nightmare. In Manchester, where they slept a night, the mob was burning Charles in effigy and hiccuping "George is magnanimous"—that mob which some weeks before had worn white favours and drunk damnation to Hanover. They saw a few miserable Highlanders, plucked from the tail of the army, in the hands of the town guard, and a mountebank in a booth had got himself up in a parody of a kilt and sang ribaldry to a screaming crowd. They heard, too, of the Government troops hard on the trail, Wade cutting in from the east by the hill roads, Cumberland hastening from the south, Bland's and Cobham's regiments already north of the town, mounted yeomen to guard the fords and bridges, and beacons blazing on every hill to raise the country.

"The Prince must halt and fight," Alastair told his companion as they rode out of Manchester next morning. "With this hell's pack after him he will be smothered unless he turn and tear them. Lord George will command the rear-guard, and I am positive he will stand at Preston. Ribble ford is the place. You may yet witness a battle, and have the chance of fleshing that blade of yours."

But when they came to Preston—by circuitous ways, for they had to keep up the pretence of timid travellers, and the main road was too thick with alarums—they found the bridge held by dragoons. Here they were much catechized, and, having given Newcastle as their destination, were warned that the northern roads into Yorkshire were not for travellers and bidden go back to Manchester. The Prince, it seemed, was at Lancaster, and Lord George and the Glengarry men and the Appin Stewarts half-way between that town and Preston.

That night Alastair implored Johnson to return. "We are on the edge of battle," he told him, "and I beseech you to keep away from what can only bring you ruin." But the other was obstinate. "I will see you at any rate on the eve of joining your friends," he said, "We have yet to reach Ramoth-Gilead."

The Preston dragoons were too busy on their own affairs to give much heed to two prosaic travellers. Alastair and Johnson stole out of the town easily enough next morning, and making a wide circuit to the west joined the Lancaster road near Garstang. To their surprise the highway was almost deserted, and they rode into Lancaster without hindrance. There they found the town in a hubbub, windows shuttered, entries barricaded, the watch making timid patrols about the streets, and one half the people looking anxiously south, the other fearfully north to the Kendal road. The Prince had been there no later than yesterday, and the rear-guard had left at dawn. News had come that the Duke of Cumberland was recalled, because of a French landing, and there were some who said that now the Scots would turn south again and ravage their way to London.

The news, which he did not believe, encouraged Alastair to mend his pace. There had been some kind of check in the pursuit, and the Prince might yet cross the Border without a battle. He believed that this would be Lord George's aim, who knew his army and would not risk it, if he could, in a weary defensive action. The speed of march would therefore be increased, and he must quicken if he would catch them up. The two waited in Lancaster only to snatch a meal, and then set out by the Hornby road, intending to fetch a circuit towards Kendal, where it seemed likely the Prince would lie.

The afternoon was foggy and biting cold, so that Alastair looked for snow and called on Johnson to hurry before the storm broke. But the fall was delayed, and up to the darkening they rode in an icy haze through the confused foothills. The mountains were beginning again, the hills of bent and heather that he knew; the streams swirled in grey rock-rimmed pools, the air had the sour, bleak, yet invigorating tang of his own country. But now he did not welcome it, for it was the earnest of defeat. He was returning after failure. Nay, he was leaving his heart buried in the soft South country, which once he had despised. A wild longing, the perversion of homesickness, filled him for the smoky brown champaigns and the mossy woodlands which now enshrined the jewel of Claudia. He had thought that regrets were put away for ever and that he had turned his eyes stonily to a cold future, but he had forgotten that he was young.

In the thick weather they came from the lanes into a broader high-road, and suddenly found their progress stayed. A knot of troopers bade them halt, and unslung their muskets. They were fellows in green jackets, mounted on shaggy country horses, and they spoke with the accent of the Midlands. Alastair repeated his tale, and was informed that their orders were to let no man pass that road and to take any armed and mounted travellers before the General. He asked their regiment and was told that it was the Rangers, a corps of gentlemen volunteers. The men were cloddish but not unfriendly, and, suspecting that the corps was some raw levy of yokels commanded by some thick-skulled squire, Alastair bowed to discretion and bade them show the way to the General's quarters.

But the moorland farmhouse to which they were led awoke his doubts. The sentries had the trimness of a headquarters guard, and the horses he had a glimpse of in the yard were not the screws or cart-horses of the ordinary yeoman. While they waited in the low-ceiled kitchen he had reached the conclusion that in the General he would find some regular officer of Wade's or Cumberland's command, and as he bowed his head to enter the parlour he had resolved on his line of conduct.

But he was not prepared for the sight of Oglethorpe; grim, aquiline, neat as a Sunday burgess, who raised his head from a mass of papers, stared for a second and then smiled.

"You have brought me a friend, Roger," he told the young lieutenant. "These gentlemen will be quartered here this night, for the weather is too thick to travel further; likewise they will sup with me."

When the young man had gone, he held out his hand to Alastair.

"We seem fated to cross each other's path, Mr. Maclean."

"I would present to you my friend, Mr. Samuel Johnson, sir. This is General Oglethorpe."

Johnson stared at him and then thrust forward a great hand.

"I am honoured, sir, deeply honoured. Every honest man has heard the name." And he repeated:

 

"One, driven by strong benevolence of soul,
Shall fly like Oglethorpe from pole to pole."

 

The General smiled. "Mr. Pope was over-kind to my modest deserts. But, gentlemen, I am in command of a part of His Majesty's forces, and at this moment we are in the region of war. I must request from you some account of your recent doings and your present purpose. Come forward to the fire, for it is wintry weather. And stay! Your Prince's steward has been scouring the country for cherry brandy, to which it seems His Highness is partial. But all has not been taken." He filled two glasses from a decanter at his elbow.

Looking at the rugged face and the grave kindly eyes, Alastair resolved that it was a case for a full confession. He told of his doings at Brightwell after the meeting with Oglethorpe at the Sleeping Deer, and of the fate of Mr. Nicholas Kyd, but he made no mention of Sir John Norreys. He told of his ride to Derby, and what he had found on the Ashbourne road. It is possible that there was a break in his voice, for Oglethorpe averted his eyes and shook his head.

"I cannot profess to regret a failure which it is my duty to ensure," he said, "but I can pity a brave man who sees his hopes destroyed. And now, sir? What course do you shape?"

"I must pursue the poor remains of my duty. I go to join my Prince."

"And it is my business to prevent you!"

Alastair looked at him composedly. "Nay, sir, I do not think that such can be your duty. It might be Cumberland's or Wade's, but not Oglethorpe's, for you can understand another loyalty than your own, and I do not think you will interfere with mine. I ask only to go back to my own country. I will give you my word that I will not strike a blow in England."

Again Oglethorpe smiled. "You read my heart with some confidence, sir. If I were to detain you, what would be the charge? You have not yet taken arms against His Majesty. Of your political doings I have no experience: to me you are a gentleman travelling to Scotland, who has on one occasion rendered good service to myself and so to His Majesty. That is all which, as a soldier, I am concerned to know. You will have quarters for the night, and tomorrow, if you desire it, continue your journey. But I must stipulate that the road you follow is not that of the Prince's march. You will not join his army till it is north of Esk."

Alastair bowed. "I am content."

"But your friend," Oglethorpe continued. "This Mr. Samuel Johnson who quotes so appositely the lines of Mr. Pope. He is an Englishman, and is in another case. I cannot permit Mr. Johnson to cross the Border."

"He purposes to keep me company," said Alastair, "till I have joined the Prince."

"Nay, sir," cried Johnson. "You have been honest with us, and I will be honest with you. My desire is to join the Prince and fight by my friend's side."

Oglethorpe looked at the strange figure, below the skirts of whose old brown coat peeped a scabbard. "You seem," he said, "to have fulfilled the scriptural injunction 'He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.' But, sir, it may not be. I would not part two friends before it is necessary, but you will give me your parole that you will not enter Scotland, or I must hold you prisoner and send you to Manchester."

Johnson turned to Alastair and put a hand on his shoulder.

"It seems that Providence is on your side, my friend, and has intervened to separate us. That was your counsel, but it was never mine. … So be it, then." He walked to the window and seemed to be in trouble with his dingy cravat.

Next morning when Oglethorpe's Rangers began their march towards Shap, the two travellers set out by an easterly road, forded the Lune and made for the Eden valley. The rains filled the streams and mosses, and their progress was slow, so that for days they were entangled among the high Cumbrian hills. News of the affair at Clifton, where Lord George beat off Cumberland's van and saved the retreat, came to them by a packman in a herd's sheiling on Cross Fell, and after that their journey was clear down the Eden, till the time came to avoid Carlisle and make straight across country for Esk. The last night they lay at an ale-house on the Lyneside, and Alastair counted thirty guineas from his purse.

"With this I think you may reach London," he told Johnson, and when the latter expostulated, he bade him consider it a loan. "If I fall, it is my bequest to you; and if I live, then we shall assuredly meet again and you can repay me. I would fain make it more, but money is likely to be a scarce commodity in yonder army."

"You have a duty clear before you," said the other dismally. "For me, I have none such; I would I had. But I will seek no opiates in a life of barbarism. I am resolved to spend what days the Almighty may still allot me on the broad highway of humanity. When I have found my task I will adhere to it like a soldier."

Next morning they rode to a ridge beneath which the swollen Esk poured through the haughlands. It was a day of flying squalls, and the great dales of Esk and Annan lay mottled with sun-gleams and purple shadows up to the dark hills, which, chequered with snow, defended the way to the north. Further down Alastair's quick eye noted a commotion on the river banks, and dark objects bobbing in the stream.

"See," he cried, "His Highness is crossing. We have steered skilfully, for I enter Scotland by his side."

"Is that Scotland?" Johnson asked, his shortsighted eyes peering at the wide vista.

"Scotland it is, and somewhere over yon hills lies Ramoth-Gilead."

Alastair's mind had in these last days won a certain peace, and now at the sight of the army something quickened in him that had been dead since the morning on the Ashbourne road. Youth was waking from its winter sleep. The world had become coloured again, barriers were down, roads ran into the future. Hazard seemed only hazard now and not despair. Suddenly came the sound of wild music, as the pipers struck up the air of "Bundle and go." The strain rose far and faint and elfin, like a wandering wind, and put fire into his veins.

"That is the march for the road," Alastair cried. "Now I am for my own country."

"And I for mine," said Johnson, but there was no spring in his voice. He rubbed his eyes, peered in the direction of the music, and made as if to unbuckle his sword. Then he thought better of it. "Nay, I will keep the thing to nurse my memory," he said.

The two men joined hands; and Alastair, in his foreign fashion, kissed the other on the cheek. As they mounted, a shower enveloped them, and the landscape was blotted out, so that the two were isolated in a world of their own.

"We are naked men," said Johnson. "Each must go up to his own Ramoth-Gilead, but I would that yours and mine had been the same."

Then he turned his horse and rode slowly southward into the rain.


POSTSCRIPT

Thus far Mr. Derwent's papers.

With the farewell on the Cumberland moor Alastair Maclean is lost to us in the mist. Of the nature of Ramoth-Gilead let history tell; it is too sad a tale for the romancer. But one is relieved to know that he did not fall at Culloden, or swing like so many on Haribee outside the walls of Carlisle. For the Editor has been so fortunate as to discover a further document, after a second search among Mr. Derwent's archives, a document in the handwriting of Mr. Samuel Johnson himself; and there seems to be the strongest presumption that it was addressed to Alastair at some town in France, for there is a mention of hospitality shown one Alan Maclean who had crossed the Channel with a message and was on the eve of returning. There is no superscription, the letter begins "My dear Sir," and the end is lost; but since it is headed "Gough Square," and contains a reference to the writer's beginning work on his great dictionary, the date may be conjectured to be 1748. Unfortunately the paper is much torn and discoloured, and only one passage can be given with any certainty of correctness. I transcribe it as a memorial of a friendship which was to colour the thoughts of a great man to his dying day and which, we may be assured, left an impress no less indelible upon the mind of the young Highlander.

 

"… I send by your kinsman the second moiety of the loan which you made me at our last meeting, for I assume that, like so many of your race and politics now in France, you are somewhat in straits for money. I do assure you that I can well afford to make the repayment, for I have concluded a profitable arrangement with the booksellers for the publication of an English dictionary, and have already received a considerable sum in advance. …

"I will confess to you, my dear sir, that often in moments of leisure and in quiet places, my memory traverses our brief Odyssey, and I am moved again with fear and hope and the sadness of renunciation. You say, and I welcome your generosity, that from me you acquired something of philosophy; from you I am bound to reply that I learned weighty lessons in the conduct of our mortal life. You taught me that a man can be gay and yet most resolute, and that a Christian is not less capable of fortitude than an ancient Stoic. The recollection of that which we encountered together lives in me to warm my heart when it is cold, and to restore in dark seasons my trust in my fellow men. The end was a proof, if proof were wanted, of the vanity of human wishes, but sorrow does not imply failure, and my memory of it will not fade till the hour of death and the day of judgment. …

"I have been at some pains to collect from my friends in Oxford news of my lady N——. You will rejoice to hear that she does well. Her husband, who has now a better name in the shire, is an ensample of marital decorum and treats her kindly, and she has been lately blessed with a male child. That, I am confident, is the tidings which you desire to hear, for your affection for that lady has long been purged of any taint of selfishness, and you can rejoice in her welfare as in that of a sister. But I do not forget that you have buried your heart in that monument to domestic felicity. Our Master did not place us in this world to win even honest happiness, but to shape and purify our immortal souls, and sorrow must be the companion of the noblest endeavour. Like the shepherd in Virgil you grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks. …"

 

THE END

 

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