Midwinter/Chapter 6

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VI

INTRODUCES THE RUNAWAY LADY

Alastair stole a glance at his neighbour's face and found it changed from their first meeting. It had lost its dumb misery and—for the moment—its grey pallor. Now it was flushed, ardent, curiously formidable, and, joined with the heavy broad shoulders, gave an impression of truculent strength.

"I love to bandy such civilities," said the combatant. "I was taught to use my hands by my uncle Andrew, who used to keep the ring at Smithfields. We praise the arts of peace, but the keenest pleasure of mankind is in battles. You, sir, follow the profession of arms. Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier."

He helped himself to the remainder of the bowl of punch, which he gulped down noisily. Alastair was in two minds about his new acquaintance. The man's simplicity and courage and honest friendliness went to his heart, but he was at a loss in which rank of society to place him. Mr. Johnson spoke with a queer provincial accent—to him friend was "freend" and a shire a "sheer"—and his manners were those of a yokel, save that they seemed to spring from a natural singularity rather than from a narrow experience, for at moments he had a fine dignity, and his diction was metropolitan if his pronunciation was rustic. The more the young man looked at the weak heavy-lidded eyes and the massive face, the more he fell under their spell. The appearance was like a Moorish palace—outside, a bleak wall which had yet a promise of a treasure-house within.

"What of your errand?" he asked. "When we last parted you were in quest of a runaway lady."

"My quest has prospered, though I have foundered a good horse over it, and when I have paid for this night's lodging, shall have only a quarter-guinea to take me back to Chastlecote. Why, sir, since you are kind enough to interest yourself in this affair, you shall be told of it. Miss Grevel is duly and lawfully wed and is now my lady Norreys. Sir John has gone north on what he considers to be his duty. He is, as you are aware, a partisan of the young Prince. My lady stays behind; indeed she is lodged not a mile from this inn in the house of her mother's brother, Mr. Thicknesse."

"Then you are easier in mind about the business?"

"I am easier in mind. The marriage was performed as decently as was possible for a thing so hastily contrived. He has behaved to the lady in all respects with courtesy and consideration, and he has shown the strength of his principles by departing at once to the camp of his Prince. I am disposed to think better of his character than I had been encouraged to by rumour. And, sir, there is one thing that admits of no shadow of doubt. The lady is most deeply in love."

"You have seen her?"

"This very day. She carries her head as if she wore a crown on it, and her eyes are as happy as a child's. I did not venture to present myself, for if she guessed that I had followed her she would have laid a whip over my back." He stopped to laugh, with affection in his eyes. "She has done it before, sir, for 'tis a high-spirited lady. So I bribed a keeper with sixpence to allow me to watch from a covert, as she took her midday walk. She moved like Flora, and she sang as she moved. That is happiness, said I to myself, and whatever the faults of the man who is its cause, 'twould be sacrilege to mar it. So I slipped off, thanking my Maker that out of seeming ill the dear child had won this blessedness."

Mr. Johnson ceased to drum on the table or waggle his foot, and fell into an abstraction, his body at peace, his eyes fixed on the fire in a pleasant dream. The company in the kitchen had thinned to half a dozen, and out-of-doors the din of the fair seemed to be dying down. Alastair was growing drowsy, and he too fell to staring at the flames and seeing pictures in their depths. Suddenly a hand was laid on his elbow and, turning with a start, he found a lean little man on the form behind him.

"Be 'ee the Dook's man?" a cracked voice whispered.

Alastair puzzled, till he remembered that an hour back he had claimed to be Queensberry's agent. So he nodded.

The little man thrust a packet into his hands.

"This be for 'ee," he said, and was departing, when Alastair plucked his arm.

"From whom?" he asked.

"I worn't to say, but 'ee knows." Then he thrust forward a toothless mouth to the other's ear. "From Brother Gilly," he whispered.

"And to whom were you sent?"

"To 'ee. To the Dook's man at the Dog and Gun. I wor to ask at the landlord, but 'e ain't forthcoming, and one I knows and trusts points me to 'ee."

Alastair realised that he was mistaken for Mr. Nicholas Kyd, now posting south; and, since the two were on the same business, he felt justified in acting as Mr. Kyd's deputy. He pocketed the package and gave the messenger a shilling. At that moment Mr. Johnson came out of his reverie. His brow was clouded.

"At my lord Cornbury's house there was a tall man with a florid face. He treated me with little politeness and laughed out of season. He had a servant, too, a rough Scot who attended to my horse. I have seen that servant in these parts."

Alastair woke to a lively interest. Then he remembered that Mr. Kyd had told him of a glimpse he had had of the tutor of Chastlecote. Johnson had seen the man Edom before he had started south.

His thoughts turned to the packet. There could be no chance of overtaking Mr. Kyd, whose correspondent was so culpably in arrears. The thing might be the common business of the Queensberry estates, in which case it would be forwarded when he found an occasion. But on the other hand it might be business of Menelaus, business of urgent import to which Alastair could attend. … He debated the matter with himself for a little, and then broke the seal.

The packet had several inclosures. One was in a cypher to which he had not the key. Another was a long list of names, much contracted, with figures in three columns set against each. The third riveted his eyes, so that he had no ear for the noises of the inn or the occasional remarks of his companion.

It was a statement, signed by the word Tekel and indorsed with the name of Mene—a statement of forces guaranteed from Wales and the Welsh Marches. There could be no doubt about its purport. There was Sir Watkin's levy and the day and the hour it would be ready to march; that was a test case which proved the document authentic, for Alastair himself had discussed provisionally these very details a week ago at Wynnstay. There were other levies in money and men against the names of Cotton, Herbert, Savage, Wynne, Lloyd, Powell. Some of the figures were queried, some explicit and certified. There was a note about Beaufort, promising an exact account within two days, which would be sent to Oxford. Apparently the correspondent called Gilly, whoever he might be, knew of Kyd's journey southward, but assumed that he had not yet started. At the end were three lines of gibberish—a cypher obviously.

As his mind grasped the gist of the thing, a flush crept over his face and he felt the beat of his heart quicken. Here was news, tremendous news. The West was rising, careless of a preliminary English victory, and waiting only the arrival of the Prince at some convenient rendezvous. There were ten thousand men and half a million of money in these lists, and they were not all. Beaufort was still to come, and Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, and the Welsh south-west. The young man's eyes kindled, and then grew a little dim. He saw the triumph of his Prince, and the fulfilment of his dreams, for the war would no longer be a foreign invasion but a rising of Englishmen. He remembered Midwinter's words, "You can win only by enlisting Old England." It looked as if it had been done. … He saw now why Kyd must linger in the south. He was the conduit pipe of a vital intelligence which must go to the Prince by the swiftest means, for on it all his strategy depended. He himself would carry this budget, and for the others Kyd had doubtless made his own plans. Even now Lancashire would be up, and Cheshire stirring. …

The kitchen door was flung open with a violence which startled three topers left by the table. A lantern wavered in the doorway, and in front of it a square-set man in fustian stumped into the place. He carried a constable's stave in one hand and in the other a paper. Behind him a crowd followed, among which might be recognised the mummers of the evening, notably the one whose bandaged face bore witness to the strength of Mr. Samuel Johnson's fist.

The constable marched up to the hearth.

"By these 'ere presents I lays 'old on the bodies of two suspected pussons, to wit one Muck Lane, a Scotchman, and one Johnson, a schoolmaster, they being pussons whose doings and goings and comings are contrairy to the well-bein' of this 'ere realm and a danger to the peace of our Lord the King."

The mention of himself by name showed Alastair that this was no affair of village spy-hunters, but a major peril. In his hand he still held the packet addressed to Kyd. Were he searched it might be damning evidence; moreover he had already the best part of the intelligence therein contained in his head. Mr. Johnson, who was chilly, had just flung on more logs and the fire blazed high. Into the red heart of it went the paper and, since the tutor's bulky figure was between him and the door, the act was not noticed by the constable and his followers.

"What whim of rascality is this?" asked Mr. Johnson, reaching for a stout oak stick which he had propped in a corner.

"A very troublesome whim for you," said a voice. "The constable holds a warrant issued by Squire Thicknesse for the arrest of two Jacobite emissaries traced into this village."

"Ay," said the constable, "’ee'd better come quiet, for Squire 'ave sent a brave lot o' keepers and stable lads to manhandle 'ee if 'ee don't. My orders is to carry 'ee to the Manor and lock 'ee up there till such time as 'ee can be sent to Brumming'am."

"Arrant nonsense," cried Johnson. "I'm a better subject of His Majesty than any rascal among you, and so, I doubt not, is my friend. Yet so great is our veneration for the laws of England, that we will obey this preposterous summons. Take me to your Squire, but be warned, every jack of you, that if a man lays his hand on me I will fell him to the earth."

"And I say likewise," said Alastair, laying a significant hand on his sword.

The constable, who had no great stomach for his duty, was relieved by his prisoners' complaisance, and after some discussion with his friend announced that no gyves should be used if they consented to walk with the Squire's men on both sides of them. Alastair insisted on having his baggage brought with him, which was duly delivered to one of the Manor's grooms by a silent landlady; Mr. Johnson carried his slender outfit in his pockets. The landlord did not show himself. But at the inn door, before the Manor men closed up, a figure pressed forward from the knot of drunken onlookers, and Alastair found his sleeve plucked and the face of Brother Gilly's messenger beside him.

"I've been mistook, maister. 'Ee bain't the Dook's man, not the one I reckoned. Gimme back the letter."

"It's ashes now. Tell that to him that sent you. Say the letter's gone, but the news travels forward in a man's head."

The messenger blinked uncomprehendingly and then made as if to repeat his request, but a sudden rush of merrymakers, hungry for a fresh spectacle, swept him down the street. Presently the escort was clear of the village and tramping through a black aisle of trees. Someone lit a lantern, which showed the mattress of chestnut leaves underfoot and the bare branches above. The keepers and stable-boys whistled, and Mr. Johnson chanted aloud what sounded like Latin hexameters. For him there was no discomfort in the adventure save that on a raw night it removed him from a warm fireside.

But for Alastair the outlook was grave. Here was he arrested by a booby constable on the warrant of some Justice Shallow, but arrested under his own name. He had passed secretly from Scotland to Cornbury, and but for the party at the latter place and one strange fellow on Otmoor, no one had known that name. Could the news have leaked out from the Cornbury servants? But, even then, he was not among the familiar figures of Jacobitism, and he had but just come from France. Only Lord Cornbury knew his true character, and Lord Cornbury did not talk. Yet someone with full knowledge of his past and present had tracked him to this village, a place far from any main highway to the North.

What he feared especially was delay. Unless Cornbury bore witness against him, or the man from Otmoor, the law had no evidence worth a farthing. Hearsay and suspicion could not hang him. He would play the part of the honest traveller now returning from an Oxfordshire visit, and if needs be he would refer to Queensberry's business. But hearsay and suspicion could delay. He was suddenly maddened by the thought that some bumbling Justice might detain him in these rotting midlands when the Prince was crossing Ribble. And he had to get north with the news of the Welsh recruiting! At the thought he bit his lips in a sharp vexation.

They passed through gates into a park where the trees fell back from the road, and presently were in a flagged courtyard with a crack of light showing from a door ajar. It opened and a portly butler filled it.

"You will await his honour in the Justice Room," he announced, and the prisoners swung to the right under an archway into another quadrangle.

The Justice Room proved to be a bare apartment, smelling strongly of apples, with a raised platform at one end and on the floor a number of wooden forms arranged like the pens at a sheep fair. On the platform stood a large handsome arm-chair covered in Spanish leather, and before it a small table. The butler entered by a door giving on the platform, and on the table placed a leather-bound book and on the chair a red velvet cushion.

"Exit the clerk, enter the preacher," said Johnson.

The servant, bowing profoundly, ushered in a tall gentleman in a suit of dark-blue velvet, with a fine lace cravat falling over a waistcoat of satin and silver. The gentleman might have been fifty years of age by the lines round his mouth, but his cherubic countenance was infantine in contour, and coloured, by hunting or the bottle, to an even pink. He had clearly been dining well, for he plumped down heavily in the chair and his eye was as blue and vacant as a frosty sky. When he spoke it was with the careful enunciation of one who is not in a condition to take liberties with the English tongue.

"Makin' so bold, your honour," said the constable, "them 'ere's the prisoners as is named in your honour's worshipful warrant."

His honour nodded. "What the devil do you want me to do, Perks?" he asked.

The mummer with the broken head, who had become mysteriously one of the party, answered.

"Lock 'em up for to-night, Squire Thicknesse, and to-morrow send 'em to Birmingham with a mounted escort. It's political business, and no matter of poaching or petty thieving."

"I require that the charge be read," said Johnson.

Squire Thicknesse took up a paper, looked at it with aversion, and gazed round him helplessly. "Where the devil is my clerk?" he lamented. "Gone feasting to Flambury, I'll warrant. I cannot read this damned crabbed hand."

"Let me be your clerk, Nunkie dear."

A girl had slipped through the door, and now stood by the chair looking over the Squire's shoulder. She was clearly very young, for her lips had the pouting fullness and her figure the straight lines of a child's, and her plain white gown and narrow petticoats had a nursery simplicity. The light was bad, and Alastair could not note the details, seeing only a glory of russet hair and below it a dimness of pearl and rose. On that much he was clear, and on the bird-like charm of her voice.

The effect of the vision on Johnson was to make him drive an elbow into Alastair's ribs and to murmur in what was meant for a whisper: "That is my lady. That is the dear child."

The sharp young eyes had penetrated the gloom below the platform.

"Why, Nunkie, there is a face I know. Heavens! It is our tutor from Chastlecote. Old Puffin we called him, for he puffs like my spaniel. A faithful soul, Nunkie, but at times oppressive. What can he want so far from home?"

The mummer, who seemed to have assumed the duties of prosecution, answered:

"The man Johnson is accused of being act and part with the other in conspiracy against His Majesty's throne."

The girl's laughter trilled through the place. "Oh, what delectable folly! Mr. Samuel a conspirator! He is too large and noisy, Nunkie, and far, far too much of a sobersides. But give me the paper and I will be your clerk."

With disquiet and amazement Alastair listened to the record. His full name was set down and his rank in King Louis' service. His journey into Oxfordshire was retailed, and its purpose, but the name of Cornbury was omitted. Then followed his expedition into Wales, with special mention of Wynnstay, and last his urgent reasons for returning north. Whoever had compiled the indictment was most intimately informed of all his doings. His head swam, for the thing seemed starkly incredible, and the sense of having lived unwittingly close to a deadly foe affected him with something not far from fear.

"What do you say to that?" Squire Thicknesse asked.

"That it is some foolish blunder. You have laid hold on the wrong man, sir, and I admit no part of it except the name, which is mine, and, with deference, as ancient and unsmirched as your honour's. No single fact can be adduced to substantiate these charges."

"They will be abundantly proven." The mummer's voice croaked ominous as a raven's.

The charge against Johnson proved to be much flimsier, and was derided by the girl. "I insist that you straightly discharge my Mr. Samuel," she cried. "I will go bail for his good behaviour, and to-morrow a servant shall take him back to Chastlecote. He is too innocent to be left alone. The other——"

"He says he is an agent of the Duke of Queensberry," said the relentless mummer. "I can prove him to be a liar."

The girl was apparently not listening. Her eyes had caught Alastair's and some intelligence seemed to pass from them to his. She spoke a word in the Squire's ear and then looked beyond the prisoners to the mummer.

"My uncle, who is known for his loyalty to the present Majesty, will take charge of the younger prisoner and send him safe to-morrow to Birmingham. The other he will discharge. … That is your will, Nunkie?"

The Squire nodded. He was feeling very sleepy and at the same time very thirsty, and his mind hovered between bed and a fresh bottle.

"You may go home now, friends," she said, "and sweet dreams to you. You, constable, bring the two men to the Great Hall." Then she slipped an arm inside her uncle's. "My Mr. Sam shall sup in the buttery and have a bed from Giles. To-morrow we will find him a horse. You are a wise judge, Nunkie, and do not waste your wisdom on innocents. The other man looks dangerous and must be well guarded. Put him in the Tower garret, and give Giles the key. But first let the poor creature have bite and sup, if he wants it. He has the air of a gentleman."

As Alastair walked before the staff of the constable, who wielded it like an ox-goad, his mind was furiously busy at guessing the source of the revelations in the warrant. Not till they stood in the glow of the hall lights did the notion of Kyd's servant come to him by the process of exhausting other possibilities. But the man had set off with Kyd early that morning for the South from a place forty miles distant. It was a naked absurdity, but nevertheless he asked Johnson the question, "Where did you see the serving man who took your horse at Cornbury?"

The answer staggered him. "This very day at the gate of this place about an hour after noon."

As his perturbed gaze roamed round the hall he caught again the eye of the girl, looking back with her foot on the staircase. This time there could be no mistake. Her face was bright with confidential friendliness.