Midwinter/Chapter 3

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III

IN WHICH PRIVATE MATTERS CUT ACROSS AFFAIRS OF STATE

In the circle of the lantern's light the horseman, a big shambling fellow, stood swaying as if in extreme fatigue, now steadying himself by a hand on the animal's neck, now using the support of the groom's shoulder. His weak eyes peered and blinked, and at the sight of the gentlemen he made an attempt at a bow.

"My lord!" he gasped with a dry mouth. "Do I address my lord Cornbury?"

He did not wait for an answer. "I am from Chastlecote, my lord. I beg—I supplicate—a word with your lordship."

"Now?"

"Now, if it please you. My business is most urgent. It is life or death, my lord, the happiness or despair of an immortal soul."

"You are the tutor from Chastlecote, I think. You appear to have been trying your beast high."

"I have ridden to Weston and to Heythrop since midday."

"Have you eaten?"

"Not since breakfast, my lord." The man's eyes were wolfish with hunger and weariness.

"Then you shall eat, for there can be no business between a full man and a fasting. The groom will see to your horse. Follow me."

Lord Cornbury led the way past the angle of the house to where the lit windows of the dining-room made a glow in the dark.

"’Tis a night of queer doings," he whispered to Alastair, as they heard the heavy feet of the stranger stumbling behind them. "We will surprise Kit Lacy in his cups, but there will be some remnants of supper for this fellow. 'Pon my soul, I am curious to know what has shifted such a gravity out of bed."

He unlocked the garden-door and led the way through the great hall to the dining-room. Sir Christopher, mellow but still sober, was interrupted in a song, and, with admirable presence of mind, cut it short in a view holloa. Mr. Kyd, rosy as the dawn, hastened to place chairs.

"Your pardon, gentlemen, but I bring you a famished traveller. Sit down, sir, and have at that pie. There is claret at your elbow."

The new-comer muttered thanks and dropped heavily into a chair. Under the bright candelabrum, among crystal and silver and shining fruit and the gay clothes of the others, he cut an outrageous figure. He might have been in years about the age of Lord Cornbury, but disease and rough usage had wiped every sign of youth from his face. That face was large, heavily-featured and pitted deep with the scars of scrofula. The skin was puffy and grey, the eyes beneath the prominent forehead were pale and weak, the mouth was cast in hard lines as if from suffering. His immense frame was incredibly lean and bony, and yet from his slouch seemed unwholesomely weighted with flesh. He wore his own hair, straight and lank and tied with a dusty ribbon. His clothes were of some coarse grey stuff and much worn, and, though on a journey, he had no boots, but instead clumsy unbuckled shoes and black worsted stockings. His cuffs and neckband were soiled, and overcrowded pockets made his coat hang on him like a sack. Such an apparition could not but affect the best-bred gentleman. Kit Lacy's mouth was drawn into a whistle, Mr. Kyd sat in smiling contemplation. Alastair thought of Simon Lovat as he had last seen that vast wallowing chieftain, and then reflected that Simon carried off his oddity by his air of arrogant command. This fellow looked as harassed as a mongrel that boys have chivvied into a corner. He cut himself a wedge of pie and ate gobblingly. He poured out a tankard of claret and swallowed most of it at a gulp. Then he grew nervous, choked on a crumb, gulped more claret and coughed till his pale face grew crimson.

The worst pangs of hunger allayed, he seemed to recollect his errand. His lips began to mutter as if he were preparing a speech. His tired eyes rested in turn on each member of the company, on Lacy and Kyd lounging at the other side of the table, on Cornbury's decorous figure at the head, on Alastair wrapped in his own thoughts at the foot. This was not the private conference he had asked for, but it would appear that the urgency of his need must override discretion. A spasm of pain distorted the huge face, and he brought his left hand down violently on the table, so that the glasses shivered.

"My lord," he said, "she is gone."

The company stared, and Sir Christopher tittered.

"Who is your 'she,' sir?" he asked as he helped himself to wine.

"Miss Grevel … Miss Claudia."

The young baronet's face changed.

"The devil! Gone! Explain yourself, sir."

The man had swung round so that he faced Lord Cornbury, with his head screwed oddly over his right shoulder. As he spoke it bobbed in a kind of palsied eagerness.

"You know her, my lord. Miss Claudia Grevel; the cousin and housemate of the young heir of Chastlecote, who has been committed to my charge. Three days ago she was of age and the controller of her fortune. This morning the maids found her bed unslept in, and the lady flown."

Lord Cornbury exclaimed. "Did she leave no word?" he asked.

"Only a letter to her cousin, bidding him farewell."

"Nothing to you?"

"To me nothing. She was a high lady and to her I was only the boy's instructor. But I had marked for some weeks a restlessness in her deportment and, fearing some rash step, I had kept an eye on her doings."

"You spied on her?" said Kyd sweetly. "Is that part of an usher's duties?"

The man was too earnest to feel the rudeness of the question.

"She was but a child, sir," he said. "She had neither father nor mother, and she was about to be sole mistress of a rich estate. I pitied her, and, though she in no way condescended to me, I loved her youth and beauty."

"You did right," Lord Cornbury said. "Have your observations given you no clue to the secret of her flight?"

"In some measure, my lord. You must know that Miss Grevel is ardent in politics, and, like many gentlewomen, has a strong sentiment for the young Prince now in Scotland. She has often declared that if she had been a man she would long ago have hastened to his standard, and she was wont to rage against the apathy of the Oxfordshire squires. A scrap of news from the North would put her into a fury or an exaltation. There was one gentleman of the neighbourhood who was not apathetic and who was accordingly most welcome at Chastlecote. From him she had her news of the Prince, and it was clear by his manner towards her that he valued her person as well as shared her opinions. I have been this day to that gentleman's house and found that at an early hour he started on a journey. I was ill received there and told little, but I ascertained that he had departed with a coach and led horses. My lord, I am convinced that the unhappy girl is his companion."

"The man's name?" Lord Cornbury asked sharply.

"Sir John Norreys of Weston."

The name told nothing to two of the company, but it had a surprising effect on Sir Christopher Lacy. He sprang to his feet, and began to stride up and down the room, his chin on his breast.

"I knew his father," said Lord Cornbury, "but the young man I have rarely seen. 'Tis a runaway match doubtless; but such marriages are not always tragical. Miss Grevel is too highly placed and well dowered for misadventure. Let us hope for the best, sir. She will return presently a sober bride."

"I am of your lordship's opinion," Mr. Kyd observed with a jolly laugh. "Let a romantic maid indulge her fancy and choose her own way of wedlock, for if she get not romance at the start she will not find it in the dreich business of matrimony. But you and me, my lord, are bachelors and speak only from hearsay."

The tutor from Chastlecote seemed to be astounded at the reception of his news.

"You do not know the man," he cried. "It is no case of a youthful escapade. I have made inquiries, and learned that he is no better than a knave. If he is a Jacobite it is for gain, if he weds Miss Grevel it is for her estate."

"Now what the devil should a dominie like you know about the character of a gentleman of family?"

The words were harsh, but, as delivered by Mr. Kyd with a merry voice and a twinkle of the eye, they might have passed as a robust pleasantry. But the tutor was not in the mood for them. Anger flushed his face, and he blew out his breath like a bull about to charge. Before he could reply, however, he found an ally in Sir Christopher. The baronet flung himself again into his chair and stuck both elbows on the table.

"The fellow is right all the same," he said. "Jack Norreys is a low hound, and I'll take my oath on it. No scamp is Jack, for his head is always cool and he has a heart like a codfish. He has a mighty good gift for liquor—I say that for him—but the damnable fellow profits by the generous frailties of his betters. He is mad for play, but he loves the cards like an attorney, not like a gentleman, and he makes a fat thing out of them. No, damme! Jack's no true man. If he wants the girl 'tis for her fortune, and if he sings Jacobite, 'tis because he sees some scoundrelly profit for himself. I hate the long nose and the mean eyes of him."

"You hear?" cried the tutor who had half risen from his seat in his excitement. "You hear the verdict of an honest man!"

"You seem to know him well, Kit," said Lord Cornbury, smiling.

"Know him! Gad, I have had some chances. We were birched together at Eton, and dwelt in the same stairway at Christ Church. I once rode a match with him on the Port Meadow and bled him for a hundred guineas, but he has avenged himself a thousandfold since then at the Bibury meetings. He may be Lord High Chancellor when I am in the Fleet, but the Devil will get him safe enough at the end."

Lord Cornbury looked grave, Mr. Kyd wagged a moralising head.

"The thing has gone too far to stop," said the former. Then to the tutor: "What would you have me do?"

The visitor's uncouth hands were twisting themselves in a frenzy of appeal.

"My mistress at Chastlecote is old and bedridden, my charge is but a boy, and Miss Grevel has no relatives nearer than Dorset. I come to you as the leading gentleman in this shire and an upright and public-spirited nobleman, and I implore you to save that poor pretty child from her folly. They have gone north, so let us follow. It may not be too late to prevent the marriage."

"Ah, but it will be," said Mr. Kyd. "They can find a hedge-parson any hour of the day to do the job for a guinea and a pot of ale."

"There is a chance, a hope, and, oh sir, I beseech you to pursue it."

"Would you have me mount and ride on the track of the fugitives?" Lord Cornbury asked.

"Yes, my lord, and without delay. Grant me a chair to sleep an hour in, and I am ready for any labour. We can take the road before daybreak. It would facilitate our task if your lordship would lend me a horse better fitted for my weight."

The naiveness of the request made a momentary silence. Then in spite of himself Alastair laughed. This importunate usher was on the same mission as himself, that mission which an hour earlier had conclusively failed. To force their host into activity was the aim of both, but one whom a summons from a Prince had not moved was not likely to yield to an invitation to pursue a brace of green lovers. Yet he respected the man's ardour, though he had set him down from his looks as a boor and an oddity; and regretted his laugh, when a distraught face was turned towards him, solemn and reproachful like a persecuted dog's.

Lord Cornbury's eyes were troubled and his hands fidgeted with a dish of filberts. He seemed divided between irritation at a preposterous demand and his natural kindliness.

"You are a faithful if importunate friend, sir. By the way, I have not your name."

"Johnson, my lord—Samuel Johnson. But my name matters nothing."

"I have heard it before. … Nay, I remember. … Was it Mr. Murray who spoke of it? Tell me, sir, have you not published certain writings?"

"Sir, I have made a living by scribbling."

"Poetry, I think. Was there not a piece on the morals of Town—in the manner of Juvenal?"

"Bawdy, I'll be bound," put in Mr. Kyd. He seemed suddenly to have grown rather drunk and spoke with a hiccough.

The tutor looked so uncouth a figure for a poet that Alastair laughed again. But the poor man's mind was far from humour, for his earnestness increased with his hearers' cynicism.

"Oh, my lord," he cried, "what does it matter what I am or what wretched books I have fathered? I urge you to a most instant duty—to save a noble young lady from a degrading marriage. I press for your decision, for the need is desperate."

"But what can I do, Mr. Johnson? She is of age, and they have broken no law. I cannot issue a warrant and hale them back to Oxfordshire. If they are not yet wed I have no authority to dissuade, for I am not a kinsman, not even a friend. I cannot forbid the banns, for I have no certain knowledge of any misdeeds of this Sir John. I have no locus, as the lawyers say, for my meddling. But in any case the errand must be futile, for if you are right and she has fled with him, they will be married long ere we can overtake them. What you ask from me is folly."

The tutor's face changed from lumpish eagerness to a lumpish gloom.

"There is a chance," he muttered. "And in the matter of saving souls a chance is enough for a Christian."

"Then my Christianity falls short of yours, sir," replied Lord Cornbury sharply.

The tutor let his dismal eyes dwell on the others. They soon left Mr. Kyd's face, stayed longer on Alastair's and came to rest on Sir Christopher's, which was little less gloomy than his own.

"You, sir," he said, "you know the would-be bridegroom. Will you assist me to rescue the bride?"

The baronet for a moment did not reply and hope flickered in the other's eyes. Then it died, for the young man brought down his fist on the table with an oath.

"No, by God. If my lord thinks the business not for him, 'tis a million times too delicate for me. You're an honest man, Mr. usher, and shall hear my reason. I loved Miss Grevel, and for two years I dared to hope. Last April she dismissed me and I had the wit to see that 'twas final. What kind of figure would I cut galloping the shires after a scornful mistress who has chosen another? I'd ride a hundred miles to see Jack Norreys' neck wrung, but you will not catch me fluttering near the honeypot of his lady."

"You think only of your pride, sir, and not of the poor girl."

The tutor, realising the futility of his mission, rose to his feet, upsetting a decanter with an awkward elbow. The misadventure, which at an earlier stage would have acutely embarrassed him, now passed unnoticed. He seemed absorbed in his own reflections, and had suddenly won a kind of rude dignity. As he stood among them Alastair was amazed alike at his shabbiness and his self-possession.

"You will stay the night here, sir? The hour is late and a bed is at your disposal."

"I thank you, my lord, but my duties do not permit of sleep. I return to Chastlecote, and if I can get no helpers I must e'en seek for the lady alone. I am debtor to your lordship for a hospitality upon which I will not further encroach. May I beg the favour of a light to the stable?"

Alastair picked up a branched candlestick and preceded the tutor into the windless night. The latter stumbled often, for he seemed purblind, but the other had no impulse to laugh, for toward this grotesque he had conceived a curious respect. The man, like himself, was struggling against fatted ease, striving to break a fence of prudence on behalf of an honourable hazard.

Kyd's servant brought the horse, refreshed by a supper of oats, and it was Alastair's arm which helped the unwieldy horseman to the saddle.

"God prosper you!" Alastair said, as he fitted a clumsy foot into a stirrup.

The man woke to the consciousness of the other's presence.

"You wish me well, sir? Will you come with me? I desire a colleague, for I am a sedentary man with no skill in travel."

"I only rest here for a night. I am a soldier on a mission which does not permit of delay."

"Then God speed us both!" The strange fellow pulled off his hat like a parson pronouncing benediction, before he lumbered into the dark of the avenue.

Alastair turned to find Kyd behind him. He was exchanging jocularities with his servant.

"Saw ye ever such a physiog, Edom?" he cried. "Dominies are getting crouse, for the body was wanting my lord to up and ride with him like a post-boy after some quean that's ta'en the jee. He's about as blate as a Cameronian preacher. My lord was uncommon patient with him. D'you not think so, Captain Maclean?"

"The man may be uncouth, but he has a stout heart and a very noble spirit. I take off my hat to his fidelity."

The reply changed Mr. Kyd's mood from scorn to a melting sentiment.

"Ay, but you're right. I hadn't thought of that. It's a noble-hearted creature, and we would all be better if we were liker him. Courage, did you say? The man with that habit of body, that jogs all day on a horse for the sake of a woman that has done nothing but clout his lugs, is a hero. I wish I had drunk his health."