IN WHICH A NOBLEMAN IS PERPLEXED
By midday Alastair, riding at leisure, had crossed the first downs of Cotswold and dropped upon the little town of Charlbury, drowsing by Evenlode in a warm October noon. He had left the fog of morning behind in the Cherwell valley, the gale of the previous day had died, and the second summer of St Luke lay soft on the country-side. In the benign weather the events of the night before seemed a fantastic dream. No mystery could lurk in this land of hedgerows and fat pastures; and the figure of Midwinter grew as absurd in his recollection as the trolls that trouble an indifferent sleeper. But a vague irritation remained. The fellow had preached a cowardly apathy towards all that a gentleman held dear. In the rebound the young man's ardour flamed high; he would carve with his sword and his wits a road to power, and make a surly world acknowledge him. Unselfish aims likewise filled his mind—a throne for his Prince, power for Clan Gillian, pride for his land, and for his friends riches and love.
In Charlbury he selected his inn, the Wheatsheaf, had his horse fed and rubbed down, drank a tankard of ale, rid himself of the dust of the roads, and deposited his baggage. A decorous and inconspicuous figure, in his chocolate coat and green velvet waistcoat with a plain dark hat of three cocks, the servants of the inn were at once civil and incurious. He questioned the landlord about the Forest of Wychwood, as if his errand lay with one of the rangers, and was given a medley of information in a speech which had the slurred "s's" and the burred "r's" of Gloucestershire. There was the Honourable Mr. Baptist Leveson-Gower, at the Rangers' Lodge, and Robert Lee at the Burford Lawn Lodge, and Jack Blackstone, him they called Chuffle Jack, at the Thatched Lodge, and likewise the Verderers, Peg Lee and Bob Jenkinson. He assumed that his guest's business lay with Mr. Leveson-Gower, and Alastair did not undeceive him, but asked casually where lay Cornbury. The landlord took him by the arm, and pointed beyond the stream to the tree-clad hills. "Over the river, sir, by the road that turns right-handed at the foot of the street. You passes the gate on your way to Rangers' Lodge. His Lordship be in residence, and entertains high quality. His lady sister, the Scotch Duchess, arrived two days back, and there's been post-chaises and coaches going to and fro all week."
Alastair remounted his horse in some disquiet, for a houseful of great folks seemed to make but a poor setting for urgent and secret conclaves. By a stone bridge he crossed the Evenlode which foamed in spate, the first free-running stream he had seen since he left the North, and passed through massive iron gates between white lodges built in Charles the Second's day. He found himself in an avenue of chestnuts and young limes, flanked by the boles of great beeches, which stretched magnificently up the slopes of a hill. In the centre was a gravelled road for coaches, but on either side lay broad belts of turf strewn with nuts and fallen leaves. … His assurance began to fail, for he remembered Midwinter's words on the Moor. The place was a vast embattled fortress of ease, and how would a messenger fare here who brought a summons to hazard all? In his own country a gentleman's house was a bare stone tower, looking out on moor or sea, with a huddle of hovels round the door. To such dwellings men sat loose, as to a tent in a campaign. But the ordered amenities of such a mansion as this—the decent town at the gates richer than a city of Scotland, the acres of policies that warded the house from the vulgar eye, the secular trees, the air of long-descended peace—struck a chill to his hopes. What did a kestrel in the home of peacocks?
At the summit of the hill the road passed beneath an archway into a courtyard; but here masons were at work and Alastair turned to the left, in doubt about the proper entrance. Fifty yards brought him in sight of a corner of the house and into a pleasance bright with late flowers, from which a park fell away into a shallow vale. There in front of him was a group of people walking on the stone of the terrace.
He was observed, and from the party a gentleman came forward, while the others turned their backs and continued their stroll. The gentleman was in the thirties, a slim figure a little bent in the shoulders, wearing his own hair, which was of a rich brown, and dressed very plainly in a country suit of green. He advanced with friendly peering eyes, and Alastair, who had dismounted, recognised the master of the house from a miniature he had seen in M. de Tremouille's hands.
"Have I the honour to address Lord Cornbury?" he asked.
The other bowed, smiling, and his short-sighted eyes looked past the young man, and appraised his horse.
"My lord, I have a letter from M. de Tremouille."
Lord Cornbury took the letter, and, walking a few paces to a clump of trees, read it carefully twice. He turned to Alastair with a face in which embarrassment strove with his natural kindliness.
"Any friend of M. de Tremouille's is friend of mine, Captain Maclean. Show me how I can serve you. Your baggage is at the inn? It shall be brought here at once, for I would not forgive myself if one recommended to me by so old a friend slept at a public hostelry."
The young man bowed. "I will not refuse your hospitality, my lord, for I am here to beg an hour of most private conversation. I come not from France, but from the North."
A curious embarrassment twisted the other's face.
"You have the word?" he asked in a low voice.
"I am Alcinous, of whom I think you have been notified."
Lord Cornbury strode off a few steps and then came back. "Yes," he said simply, "I have been notified. I expected you a month back. But let me tell you, sir, you have arrived in a curst inconvenient hour. This house is full of Whiggish company. There is my sister Queensberry, and there is Mr. Murray, His Majesty's Solicitor. … Nay, perhaps the company is the better cloak for you. I will give you your private hour after supper. Meantime you are Captain Maclean—of Lee's Regiment, I think, in King Louis' service—and you have come from Paris from Paul de Tremouille on a matter of certain gems in my collection that he would purchase for the Duc de Bouillon. You are satisfied you can play that part, sir? Not a word of politics. You do not happen to be interested in statecraft, and you have been long an exile from your native country, though you have a natural sentiment for the old line of Kings. Is that clear, sir? Have you sufficient of the arts to pose as a virtuoso?"
Alastair hoped that he had.
"Then let us get the first plunge over. Suffer me to introduce you to the company."
The sound of their steps on the terrace halted the strollers. A lady turned, and at the sight of the young man her eyebrows lifted. She was a slight figure about the middle size, whose walking clothes followed the new bergère fashion. Save for her huge hooped petticoats, she was the dainty milkmaid, in her flowered chintz, her sleeveless coat, her flat straw hat tied with ribbons of cherry velvet, her cambric apron. A long staff, with ribbons at the crook, proclaimed the shepherdess. She came toward them with a tripping walk, and Alastair marked the delicate bloom of her cheeks, unspoiled by rouge, the flash of white teeth as she smiled, the limpid depth of her great childlike eyes. His memory told him that the Duchess had passed her fortieth year, but his eyes saw a girl in her teens, a Flora of spring whose summer had not begun.
"Kitty, I present to you Captain Maclean, a gentleman in the service of His Majesty of France. He has come to me on a mission from Paul de Tremouille—a mission of the arts."
The lady held out a hand. "Are you by any happy chance a poet, sir?"
"I have made verses, madam, as young men do, but I halt far short of poetry."
"The inspiration may come. I had hoped that Harry would provide me with a new poet. For you must know, sir, that I have lost all my poets. Mr. Prior, Mr. Gay, Mr. Pope—they have all been gathered to the shades. I have no one now to make me verses."
"If your Grace will pardon me, your charms can never lack a singer."
"La, la! The singers are as dry as a ditch in mid-summer. They sigh and gloom and write doleful letters in prose. I have to fly to Paris to find a well-turned sonnet. … Here we are so sage and dutiful and civically minded. Mary thinks only of her lovers, and Mr. Murray of his lawsuits, and Mr. Kyd of his mortgage deeds, and Kit Lacy of fat cattle—nay, I do not think that Kit's mind soars even to that height."
"I protest, madam," began a handsome sheepish young gentleman behind her, but the Duchess cut him short.
"Harry!" she cried, "we are all Scotch here—all but you and Kit, and to be Scotch nowadays is to be suspect. Let us plot treason. The King's Solicitor cannot pursue us, for he will be criminis particeps."
Mr. Murray, a small man with a noble head and features so exquisitely moulded that at first sight most men distrusted him, pointed to an inscription cut on the entablature of the house.
"Deus haec nobis otia fecit," he read, in a voice whose every tone was clear as the note of a bell. "We dare not offend the genius loci, and outrage that plain commandment."
"But treason is not business."
"It is apt to be the most troublous kind of business, madam."
"Then Kit shall show me the grottos." She put an arm in the young man's, the other in the young girl's, and forced them to a pace which was ill suited to his high new hunting boots. Alastair was formally introduced to the two men remaining, and had the chance of observing the one whom the Duchess had called Mr. Kyd. He had the look of a country squire, tall, heavily built and deeply tanned by the sun. He had brown eyes, which regarded the world with a curious steadiness, and a mouth the corners of which were lifted in a perpetual readiness for laughter. Rarely had Alastair seen a more jovial and kindly face, which was yet redeemed from the commonplace by the straight thoughtful brows and the square cleft jaw. When the man spoke it was in the broad accents of the Scotch lowlands, though his words and phrases were those of the South. Lord Cornbury walked with Mr. Murray, and the other ranged himself beside Alastair.
"A pleasant habitation, you will doubtless be observing, sir. Since you're from France you may have seen houses as grand, but there's not the like of it in our poor kingdom of Scotland. In the Merse, which is my country-side, they stick the kitchen-midden up against the dining-room window, and their notion of a pleasance is a wheen grosart bushes and gillyflowers sore scarted by hens."
Alastair looked round the flowery quincunx and the trim borders where a peacock was strutting amid late roses.
"I think I would tire of it. Give me a sea loch and the heather and a burn among birchwoods."
"True, true, a man's heart is in his calf-country. We Scots are like Ulysses, and not truly at home in Phaeacia." He spoke the last word with the slightest lift of his eyebrows, as if signalling to the other that he was aware of his position. "For myself," he continued, "I'm aye remembering sweet Argos, which in my case is the inconsiderable dwelling of Greyhouses in a Lammermoor glen. My business takes me up and down this land of England, and I tell you, sir, I wouldn't change my crow-step gables for all the mansions ever biggit. It's a queer quirk in us mercantile folk."
"You travel much?"
"I needs must, when I'm the principal doer of the Duke of Queensberry. My father was man of business to auld Duke James, and I heired the job with Duke Charles. If you serve a mighty prince, who is a duke and marquis in two kingdoms and has lands and messuages to conform, you're not much off the road. Horses' iron and shoe-leather are cheap in that service. But my pleasure is at home, where I can read my Horace and crack with my friends and catch trout in the Whitader."
Mr. Kyd's honest countenance and frank geniality might have led to confidences on Alastair's part, but at the moment Lord Cornbury rejoined them with word that dinner would be served in half an hour. As they entered the house, Alastair found himself beside his host and well behind the others.
"Who is this Mr. Kyd?" he whispered. "He mentioned Phaeacia, as if he knew my character."
Lord Cornbury's face wore an anxious look. "He is my brother Queensberry's agent. But he is also one of you. You must know of him. He is Menelaus."
Alastair shook his head. "I landed from France only three weeks back, and know little of Mr. Secretary Murray's plans."
"Well, you will hear more of him. He is now on his way to Badminton, for he is said to have Beaufort's ear. His connection with my brother is a good shield. Lord! how I hate all this business of go-betweens and midnight conclaves!" He looked at his companion with a face so full of a quaint perplexity that Alastair could not forbear to laugh.
"We must creep before we can fly, my lord, in the most honest cause. But our wings are fledging well."
A footman led him to his room, which was in the old part of the house called the Leicester Wing, allotted to him, he guessed, because of its remoteness. His baggage had been brought from the inn, and a porcelain bath filled with hot water stood on the floor. He shaved, but otherwise made no more than a traveller's toilet, changing his boots for silk stockings and buckled shoes, and his bob for an ample tie-wig. The mirror showed a man not yet thirty, with small sharp features, high cheek bones, and a reddish tinge in skin and eyebrows. The eyes were of a clear, choleric blue, and the face, which was almost feminine in its contours, was made manly by a certain ruggedness and fire in its regard. His hands and feet were curiously small for one with so deep a chest and sinewy limbs. He was neat and precise in person and movement, a little finical at first sight, till the observer caught his quick ardent gaze. A passionate friend, that observer would have pronounced him, and a most mischievous and restless enemy.
His Highland boyhood and foreign journeyings had not prepared him for the suave perfection of an English house. The hall, paved with squares of black and white marble, was hung with full-length pictures of the Hyde and Danvers families, and the great figures of the Civil War. The party assembled beneath them was a motley of gay colours—the Duchess in a gown of sky-blue above rose-pink petticoats; the young girl, whose name was Lady Mary Capell, all in green like a dryad; Mr. Murray wore black velvet with a fuller wig than was the fashion of the moment; while Sir Christopher Lacy had donned the blue velvet and ermine collar of the Duke of Beaufort's Hunt, a garb in which its members were popularly believed to sleep. Mr. Kyd had contented himself with a flowered waistcoat, a plum-coloured coat and saffron stockings. Only the host was in sad colours, and, as he alone wore his natural hair, he presented a meagre and dejected figure in the flamboyant company.
The Duchess talked like a brook.
"Harry must show you the Vandykes," she told Mr. Murray. "He knows the age and tale of everyone as I know my boys' birthdays. I wish he would sell them, for they make me feel small and dingy. Look at them! We are no better than valets-de-chambre in their presence."
The major-domo conducted them to dinner, which was served in the new Indian Room. On the walls was a Chinese paper of birds and flowers and flower-hung pagodas; no pictures adorned them, but a number of delicately carved mirrors; and at intervals tall lacquer cabinets glowed on their gilt pedestals. The servants wore purple ("like bishops," Mr. Kyd whispered), and, since the room looked west, the declining October sun brought out the colours of wall and fabric and set the glasses and decanters shimmering on the polished table. Through the open windows the green slopes of the park lay bathed in light, and a pool of water sparkled in the hollow.
To Alastair, absorbed in his errand, the scene was purely phantasmal. He looked on as at a pretty pageant, heard the ladies' tinkling laughter, discussed the manège in France at long range with Lord Cornbury, who was a noted horsemaster, answered Lady Mary's inquiries about French modes as best he could, took wine with the men, had the honour to toast the Duchess Kitty—but did it all in a kind of waking dream. This daintiness and ease were not of that grim world from which he had come, or of that grimmer world which was soon to be. … He noticed that no word of politics was breathed; even the Duchess's chatter was discreet on that point. The ice was clearly too thin, and the most heedless felt the need of wary walking. Here sat the King's Solicitor, and the wife of a Whig Duke cheek by jowl with two secret messengers bearing names out of Homer, and at the head of the table was one for whom both parties angled. The last seemed to feel the irony, for behind his hospitable gaiety was a sharp edge of care. He would sigh now and then, and pass a thin hand over his forehead. But the others—Mr. Solicitor was discussing Mr. Pope's "Characters of Women" and quoting unpublished variants. No hint of embarrassment was to be detected in that mellow voice. Was he perhaps, thought Alastair, cognisant of the strange mixture at table, and not disapproving? He was an officer of the Government, but he came of Jacobite stock. Was he not Stormont's brother? … And Mr. Kyd was deep in a discussion about horses with the gentleman in the Beaufort uniform. With every glass of claret the even rosiness of his face deepened, till he bloomed like the God of Wine himself—a Bacchus strictly sober, with very wide-awake eyes.
Then to complete the comedy the catch he had heard on Otmoor began to run in Alastair's head. Three naked men we be—a far cry from this bedecked and cosseted assemblage. He had a moment of suffocation, until he regained his humour. They were all naked under their fine clothes, and for one of them it was his business to do the stripping. He caught Lord Cornbury's eye and marked its gentle sadness. Was such a man content? Had he the assurance in his soul to listen to one who brought to him not peace but swords?
The late autumn afternoon was bright and mild, with a thin mist rising from the distant stream. The company moved out-of-doors, where on a gravelled walk stood a low carriage drawn by a pair of cream-coloured ponies. A maid brought the Duchess a wide straw hat and driving gloves, and, while the others loitered at the garden door, the lady chose her companion. "Sa singularité," Mr. Murray whispered. "It is young Mr. Walpole's name for her. But how prettily she plays the rustic!"
"Who takes the air with me?" she cried. "I choose Captain Maclean. He is the newest of you, and can tell me the latest scandal of Versailles."
It was like an equipage fashioned out of Chelsea porcelain, and as Alastair took his place beside her, with his knees under a driving cloth of embroidered silk, he felt more than ever the sense of taking part in a play. She whipped up the ponies and they trotted out of the wrought-iron gates, which bounded the pleasance, into the wide spaces of the park. Her talk, which at first had been the agreeable prattle of dinner, to which he responded with sufficient ease, changed gradually to interrogatories. With some disquiet he realised that she was drifting towards politics.
"What do they think in France of the young man's taste in womankind?" she asked.
He raised his eyebrows.
"The Prince—Charles Stuart—the Chevalier. What of Jenny Cameron?"
"We heard nothing of her in Paris, madam. You should be the better informed, for he has been some months on British soil."
"Tush, we hear no truth from the North. But they say that she never leaves him, that she shares his travelling carriage. Is she pretty, I wonder? Dark or fair?"
"That I cannot tell, but, whatever they be, her charms must be mature. I have heard on good authority that she is over forty years old."
It did not need the Duchess's merry laughter to tell him that he had been guilty of a bêtise. He blushed furiously.
"La, sir," she cried, "you are ungallant. That is very much my own age, and the world does not call me matronly. I had thought you a courtier, but I fear—I gravely fear—you are an honest man."
They were now on the west side of the park, where a road led downhill past what had once been a quarry, but was now carved into a modish wilderness. The scarps of stone had been fashioned into grottos and towers and fantastic pinnacles; shrubs had been planted to make shapely thickets; springs had been turned to cascades or caught in miniature lakes. The path wound through midget Alps, which were of the same scale and quality as the chaise and the cream ponies and the shepherdess Duchess.
"We call this spot Eden," she said. "There are many things I would fain ask you, sir, but I remember the consequence of Eve's inquisitiveness and forbear. The old Eden had a door and beyond that door lay the desert. It is so here."
They turned a corner by the edge of a small lake and came on a stout palisade which separated the park from Wychwood Forest. Through the high deer-gate Alastair looked on a country the extreme opposite of the enclosed paradise. The stream, which in the park was regulated like a canal, now flowed in rough shallows or spread into morasses. Scrub clothed the slopes, scrub of thorn and hazel and holly, with now and then an ancient oak flinging gnarled arms against the sky. In the bottom were bracken and the withered blooms of heather, where bees still hummed. The eye looked up little glens towards distant ridges to which the blue October haze gave the air of high hills.
As Alastair gazed at the scene he saw again his own country-side. These were like the wild woods that cloaked Loch Sunart side, the wind brought him the same fragrance of heath and fern, he heard the croak of a raven, a knot of hinds pushed from the coppice and plashed through a marshy shallow. For a second his eyes filled with tears.
He found the Duchess's hand on his. It was a new Duchess, with grave kind face and no hint of petulance at her lips or artifice in her voice.
"I brought you here for a purpose, sir," she said. "You have before you two worlds—the enclosed garden and the wild beyond. The wild is yours, by birthright and training and choice. Beyond the pale is Robin Hood's land, where men adventure. Inside is a quiet domain where they make verses and read books and cherish possessions—my brother's land. Does my parable touch you?"
"The two worlds are one, madam—one in God's sight."
"In God's sight, maybe, but not in man's. I will be plainer still with you. I do not know your business, nor do I ask it, for you are my brother's friend. But he is my darling and I fear a threat to his peace as a mother-partridge fears the coming of a hawk. Somehow—I ask no questions—you would persuade him to break bounds and leave his sanctuary for the wilds. It may be the manlier choice, but oh, sir, it is not for him. He is meant for the garden. His health is weak, his spirit is most noble but too fine for the clash of the rough world. In a year he would be in his grave."
Alastair, deeply perplexed, made no answer. He could not lie to this woman, nor could he make a confidante of the wife of Queensberry.
"Pardon me if I embarrass you," she went on. "I do not ask a reply. Your secrets would be safe with me, but if you told me them I should stop my ears. For politics I care nothing, I know nothing. I speak on a brother's behalf, and my love for him makes me importunate. I tell you that he is made for the pleasance, not for the wilderness. Will you weigh my words?"
"I will weigh them most scrupulously. Lord Cornbury is blessed in his sister."
"I am all he has, for he never could find a wife to his taste." She whipped up the ponies and her voice changed to its old lightness. "La, sir, we must hasten. The gentlemen will be clamouring for tea."
In the great gallery, among more Vandykes and Knellers and Lelys and panels of Mortlake tapestry, the company sipped tea and chocolate. The Duchess made tea with her own hands, and the bright clothes and jewels gleaming in the dusk against dim pictures had once more the airy unreality of a dream. But Alastair's mood had changed. He no longer felt imprisoned among potent shadows, for the glimpse he had had of his own familiar country had steadied his balance. He saw the life he had chosen in fairer colours, the life of toil and hazard and enterprise, in contrast with this airless ease. The blood ran quicker in his veins for the sight of a drugged and sleeping world. Ancient possessions, the beauty of women, the joy of the senses were things to be forsworn before they could be truly admired. Now he looked graciously upon what an hour ago had irked him.
When the candles were lit and the curtains drawn the scene grew livelier. The pretty Lady Mary, sitting under the Kneller portrait of her mother, was a proof of the changelessness of beauty. A pool was made at commerce, in which all joined, and the Duchess's childlike laughter rippled through the talk like a trout-stream. She was in her wildest mood, the incomparable Kitty whom for thirty years every poet had sung. The thing became a nursery party, where discretion was meaningless, and her irreverent tongue did not refrain from politics. She talked of the Stuarts.
"They intermarried with us," she cried, "so I can speak as a kinswoman. A grave dutiful race—they were, tragically misunderstood. If their passions were fierce, they never permitted them to bias their statecraft."
A portrait of Mary of Scots hung above her as she spoke. Mr. Murray cast a quizzical eye upon it.
"Does your summary embrace that ill-fated lady?" he asked.
"She above all. Her frailties were not Stuart but Tudor. Consider Harry the Eighth. He had passions like other monarchs, but instead of keeping mistresses he must marry each successive love, and as a consequence cut off the head of the last one. His craze was not for amours but for matrimony. So, too, with his sister Margaret. So, too, with his great-niece Mary. She might have had a hundred lovers and none would have gainsaid her, but the mischief came when she insisted on wedding them. No! No! What ruined the fortunes of my kinsfolk was not the Stuart blood but the Tudor—the itch for lawful wedlock which came in with the Welsh bourgeoisie."
"Your Grace must rewrite the histories," said Mr. Murray, laughing.
"I have a mind to. But my Harry will bear me witness. The Stuart stock is sad and dutiful. Is not that the character of him who now calls himself the rightful King of England?"
"So I have heard it said," Lord Cornbury answered, but the eyes which looked at his sister were disapproving.
The ladies went early to bed, after nibbling a sweet biscuit and sipping a glass of negus. Supper was laid for the gentlemen in the dining-room, and presently Mr. Murray, Mr. Kyd and Sir Christopher Lacy were seated at a board which they seemed to have no intention of leaving. Alastair excused himself on the plea of fatigue, and lit a bedroom candle. "I will come to your room," his host whispered as they crossed the hall. "Do not undress. We will talk in my little cabinet."
The young man flung himself into a chair, and collected his thoughts. He had been chosen for this mission, partly because of his address and education, but mainly because of the fierce ardour which he had hitherto shown in the Prince's cause. He knew that much hung on his success, for Cornbury, though nothing of a soldier and in politics no more than Member of Parliament for the University of Oxford, was so beloved that his adherence would be worth a regiment. He knew his repute. Such a man could not quibble in matters of principle; the task was rather to transform apathy into action. He remembered the Duchess's words—honest words, doubtless, but not weighty. Surely in so great a test of honour a man could not hesitate because his health was weak or his home dear to him.
There was a knock at the door and Lord Cornbury entered with a silk dressing-gown worn over his clothes. He looked round the room with his sad restless eyes.
"Here Lord Leicester died—Elizabeth's favourite. They say that when the day of his death comes round his spirit may be heard tapping at the walls. It is a commentary on mortal ambition, Captain Maclean. Come with me to my cabinet. Mr. Solicitor is gone to bed, for he is ready enough for an all-night sitting at St. James's among the wits, but has no notion of spoiling his sleep by potations among bumpkins. Kit Lacy and Mr. Kyd will keep it up till morning, but happily they are at the other end of the house."
He led the way down a narrow staircase to a little room on the ground floor, which had for its other entrance a door giving on a tiny paved garden. It was lined with books and a small fire had been lit on the hearth.
"Here we shall be secure, for I alone have the keys," Lord Cornbury said, taking a seat by a bureau where the single lamp was behind his head. "You have something private for my ear? I must tell you, sir, I have been plagued for many months by portentous secret emissaries. There was my lord Clancarty, a Cyclops with one eye and a shocking perruque, who seemed to me not wholly in possession of his wits. There was a Scotch gentleman—Bahaldy—Bohaldy—whom I suspected of being a liar. There was Traquair, whose speech rang false in every stutter. They and their kind were full of swelling words, but they were most indisputably fools. You are not of their breed, sir. From you I look for candour and good sense. What have you to say to me?"
"One thing only, my lord. From me you will get no boasts or promises. I bring you a summons."
Alastair took from his breast a letter. Lord Cornbury broke the seal and revealed a page of sprawling irregular handwriting, signed at the foot with the words "Charles P." He read it with attention, read it again, and then looked at the messenger.
"His Royal Highness informs me that I will be 'inexcusable before God and men' if I fail him. For him that is a natural opinion. Now, sir, before answering this appeal, I have certain questions to ask you. You come from the Prince's army, and you are in the secrets of his Cabinet. You are also a soldier. I would hear from you the Prince's strength."
"He can cross the Border with not less than five thousand horse and foot."
"In the main, which means the best natural fighting stock in this land. They have already shown their prowess against Cope's regulars. There are bodies of Lowland horse with Elcho and Pitsligo."
"And your hopes of increment?"
"More than half the clans are still to raise. Of them we are certain. There are accessions to be looked for from the Lowlands. In England we have promises from every quarter—from Barrymore, Molyneux, Grosvenor, Fenwick, Petre, Cholmondeley, Leigh, Curzon in the North; from the Duke of Beaufort and Sir Watkin Wynn in the West. Likewise large sums of money are warranted from the city of London."
"You speak not of sympathy only, but of troops? Many are no doubt willing to drink His Royal Highness's health."
"I speak of troops. There is also the certain aid from France. In this paper, my lord, you will find set down the numbers and dates of troops to be dispatched before Christmas. Some are already on the way—Lord John Drummond with his regiment of Royal Ecossais and certain Irish companies from the French service."
"And you have against you?"
"In Scotland—nothing. In England at present not ten thousand men. Doubtless they will make haste to bring back troops from abroad, but before that we hope to conquer. His Royal Highness's plan is clear. He seeks as soon as possible to win a victory in England. In his view the land is for the first comer. The nation is indifferent and will yield to boldness. I will be honest with you, my lord. He hopes also to confirm the loyalty of France, for it is certain that if his arms triumph but once on English soil, the troops of King Louis will take the sea."
The other mused. "It is a bold policy, but it may be a wise one. I would raise one difficulty. You have omitted from your calculation the British Fleet."
Alastair shrugged his shoulders. "It is our prime danger, but we hope with speed and secrecy to outwit it."
"I have another objection. You are proposing to conquer England with a foreign army. I say not a word against the valour of your Highland countrymen, but to English eyes they are barbarous strangers. And France is the ancient enemy."
"Then, my lord, it is a strife of foreigner against foreigner. Are King George's Dutch and Danes and Hessians better Englishmen than the Prince's men? Let England abide the issue, and join the victor."
"You speak reasonably, I do not deny it. Let me ask further. Has any man of note joined your standard?"
"Many Scots nobles, though not the greatest. But Hamilton favours us, and there are grounds for thinking that even the Whig dukes, Argyll and Montrose and Queensberry, are soured with the Government. It is so in England, my lord. Bedford …"
"I know, I know. All are waiting on the tide. But meantime His Royal Highness's Cabinet is a rabble of Irishmen. Is it not so? I do not like to have Teague in the business, sir, and England does not like it."
"Then come yourself, my lord."
Lord Cornbury smiled. "I have not finished my questions. What of his Royal Highness's religion? I take it that it is the same as your own."
"He has already given solemn pledges for liberty and toleration. Many Presbyterians of the straitest sect are in his camp. Be sure, my lord, that he will not be guilty of his grandfather's blunder."
Lord Cornbury rose and stood with his back to the fire.
"You are still in the military stage, where your first duty is a victory in the field. What does His Royal Highness wish me to do? I am no soldier, I could not raise a dozen grooms and foresters. I do not live in Sir Watkin's county, where you can blow a horn and summon a hundred rascals. Here in Oxfordshire we are peaceable folk."
"He wants you in his Council. I am no lover of the Irish, and there is sore need of statesmanship among us."
"Say you want me for an example."
"That is the truth, my lord."
"And, you would add, for statecraft. Then let us look at the matter with a statesman's eye. You say truly that England does not love her Government. She is weary of foreign wars, and an alien Royal house, and gross taxes, and corruption in high places. She is weary, I say, but she will not stir to shift the burden. You are right; she is for the first comer. You bring a foreign army and it will fight what in the main is a foreign army, so patriotic feeling is engaged on neither side. If you win, the malcontents, who are the great majority, will join you, and His Royal Highness will sit on the throne of his fathers. If you fail, there is no loss except to yourselves, for the others are not pledged. Statesmanship, sir, is an inglorious thing, for it must consider first the fortunes of the common people. No statesman has a right to risk these fortunes unless he be reasonably assured of success. Therefore I say to you that England must wait, and statesmen must wait with England, till the issue is decided. That issue still lies with the soldiers. I cannot join His Royal Highness at this juncture, for I could bring no aid to his cause and I might bring needless ruin to those who depend on me. My answer might have been otherwise had I been a soldier."
A certain quiet obstinacy had entered the face which was revealed in profile by the lamp on the bureau. The voice had lost its gentle indeterminateness and rang crisp and clear. Alastair had knowledge enough of men to recognise finality. He made his last effort.
"Are considerations of policy the only ones? You and I share the same creeds, my lord. Our loyalty is owed to the House which has the rightful succession, and we cannot in our obedience to God serve what He has not ordained. Is it not your duty to fling prudence to the winds and make your election before the world, for right is right whether we win or lose."
"For some men maybe," said the other sadly, "but not for me. I am in that position that many eyes are turned on me and in my decision I must consider them. If your venture fails, I desire that as few Englishmen as possible suffer for it, it being premised that for the moment only armed men can help it to success. Therefore I wait, and will counsel waiting to all in like position. Beaufort can bring troops, and in God's name I would urge him on, and from the bottom of my heart I pray for the Prince's welfare."
"What will decide you, then?"
"A victory on English soil. Nay, I will go farther. So soon as His Royal Highness is in the way of that victory, I will fly to his side."
"What proof will you require?"
"Ten thousand men south of Derby on the road to London, and the first French contingent landed."
"That is your answer, my lord?"
"That is the answer which I would have you convey with my most humble and affectionate duty to His Royal Highness. … And now, sir, will you join me in a turn on the terrace, as the night is fine. It is my habit before retiring."
The night was mild and very dark, and from the lake rose the honk of wild fowl and from the woods the fitful hooting of owls. To Alastair his failure was scarcely a disappointment, for he realised that all day he had lived in expectation of it. Nay, inasmuch as it placed so solemn a duty upon the soldiers of the Cause, it strung his nerves like a challenge. Lord Cornbury put an arm in his, and the sign of friendship moved the young man's affection. It was for youth and ardour such as his to make clear the path for gentler souls.
They left the stones of the terrace and passed the lit window of the dining-room, where it appeared that merriment had advanced, for Sir Christopher Lacy was attempting a hunting-song.
"Such are the squires of England," whispered Cornbury. "They will drink and dice and wench for the Prince, but not fight for him."
"Not yet," Alastair corrected. "But when your lordship joins us he will not be unattended."
They reached the corner of the house from which in daylight the great avenue could be seen, the spot where that morning Alastair had delivered his credentials.
"I hear hooves," said Cornbury, with a hand to his ear. "Nay, it is only the night wind."
"It is a horse," said the other. "I have heard it for the last minute. Now it is entering the courtyard. See, there is a stable lantern."
A light swayed, and there was the sound of human speech.
"That is Kyd's Scotch servant," Cornbury said. "Let us inquire into the errand of this night-rider."
As they moved towards the lantern a commotion began, and the light wavered like a ship's lamp in a heavy sea.
"Haud up, sir," cried a voice. "Losh, the beast's foundered, and the man's in a dwam."