Midwinter/Chapter 9

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
 

IX

OLD ENGLAND

"Yesterday morning your Prince was encamped outside Carlisle. By now the place may have fallen."

"Who told you?" Alastair asked.

"I have my own messengers who journey in Old England," said Midwinter. "Consider, Captain Maclean. As a bird flies, the place is not a hundred and fifty miles distant, and no mile is without its people. A word cried to a traveller is taken up by another and another till the man who rubs down a horse at night in a Chester inn-yard will have news of what befell at dawn on the Scotch Border. My way is quicker than post-horses. … But the name of inn reminds me. You have the look of a fasting man."

Food was brought, and the November brume having fallen thick in the hollow, the windows were curtained, a lamp lit, and fresh fuel laid on the fire. Alastair kicked the boots from his weary legs, and as soon as his hunger was stayed fell to questioning his host; for he felt that till he could point a finger to the spy who had dogged him he had failed in his duty to the Cause. He poured out his tale without reserve.

Midwinter bent his brows and stared into the fire.

"You are satisfied that this servant Edom is honest?" he asked.

"I have observed him for half a day and the man is as much in the dark as myself. If he is a rogue he is a master in dissimulation. But I do not think so."

"Imprimis, you are insulted in the Flambury inn by those who would fasten a quarrel on you. Item, you are arrested and carried before this man Thicknesse, and one dressed like a mummer presses the accusation. Item, in a warrant you and your purposes are described with ominous accuracy. You are likewise this very day tricked by your gypsy guide, but that concerns rather my lady Norreys. These misfortunes came upon you after you had supped with Kyd, and therefore you suspected his servant, for these two alone in this country-side knew who you were. A fairly argued case, I concede, and to buttress it Kyd appears to have been near Flambury last night, when he professed to be on the road for Wiltshire. But you have ceased to suspect the servant. What of the master?"

Alastair started. "No, no. That is madness. The man is in the very heart of the Prince's counsels. He is honest, I swear—he is too deep committed."

Midwinter nodded. "If he were false, it would indeed go ill with you; for on him, I take it, depends the rising of Wales and the Marches. He holds your Prince in the hollow of his hand. And if all tales be true the omens there are happy."

Alastair told of the message from Brother Gilly, and, suddenly remembering Edom's papers, drew them from his pocket, and read them again by the firelight. Here at last was news from Badminton and from Monmouth and Hereford: and at the foot, in the cypher which was that most commonly used among the Jacobites, was a further note dealing with Sir Watkin Wynn. The writer had concerted with him a plan, by which the Welsh levies should march straight through Gloucester and Oxfordshire to cut in between Cumberland and the capital. To Alastair, the thing was proved authentic beyond doubt, for it bore the pass-word which had been agreed between himself and Sir Watkin a week before at Wynnstay.

He fell into a muse from which he was roused by Midwinter's voice.

"Kyd receives messages and forwards them northward, while he himself remains in the South. By what channel?"

"It would appear by Sir John Norreys, who is now, or soon will be, at Brightwell under the Peak."

As he spoke the words his suspicions took a new course. Johnson had thought the man a time-server, though he had yesterday recanted that view. Sir Christopher Lacy at Cornbury had been positive that he was a rogue. The only evidence to the contrary was that his wife believed in him, and that he had declared his colours by forsaking his bride for the Prince's camp. But he had not gone to the army, and it would seem that he had no immediate intention of going there, for according to Edom he would be at Brightwell during the month; and as for his wife's testimony, she was only a romantic child. Yet this man was the repository of Kyd's secret information, the use of which meant for the Prince a kingdom or a beggar's exile. If Kyd were mistaken in him, then the Cause was sold in very truth. But how came Kyd to be linked with him? How came a young Oxfordshire baronet, of no great family, and no record of service, to be Achilles of the innermost circle?

He told his companion of his doubts, unravelling each coil carefully, while the other marked his points with jerks of his pipe-bowl. When he had finished Midwinter kept silent for a little. Then "You swear by Kyd's fidelity?" he asked.

"God in Heaven, but I must," cried Alastair. "If he is false, I may return overseas to-morrow."

"It is well to test all links in a chain," was the dry answer. "But for the sake of argument we will assume him honest. Sir John Norreys is the next link to be tried. If he is rotten, then the Prince had better bide north of Ribble, for the Western auxiliaries will never move. But even if the whole hive be false, there is still hope if you act at once. This is my counsel to you, Captain Maclean. Write straightway to the Army—choose the man about the Prince who loves you most—and tell him of the great things to be hoped for from the West. Name no names, but promise before a certain date to arrive with full proof, and bid them hasten south without delay. An invasion needs heartening, and if the worst should be true no word from Kyd is likely to reach the Prince. Hearten him, therefore, so that he marches to meet you. That is the first thing. The second is that you go yourself into Derbyshire to see this Sir John Norreys. If he be true man you will find a friend; if not you may be in time to undo his treason."

The advice was what had dimly been shaping itself in Alastair's own mind. His ardour to be back with the Army, which for days had been a fever in his bones, had now changed to an equal ardour to solve the riddle which oppressed him. Midwinter was right; the Cause was on a razor edge and with him might lie the deciding. … There was black treachery somewhere, and far more vital for the Prince than any victory in Scotland was the keeping the road open for West England to join him. Shadows of many reasons flitted across his mind and gave strength to his resolve. He would see this man Norreys who had won so adorable a lady. He would see the lady again, and at the thought something rose in his heart which surprised him, for it was almost joy.

"Have you paper and ink?" he asked, and from a cupboard Midwinter produced them and set them before him.

He wrote to Lochiel, who was his kinsman, for though he knew Lord George Murray there was a certain jealousy between them. Very roughly he gave the figures which he had gleaned from Brother Gilly's letter and that taken from Edom. He begged him to move the Prince to march without hesitation for the capital, and promised to reach his camp with full information before the month ended. "And the camp will, I trust, be by that time no further from St James's than——" He asked Midwinter for a suitable place, and was told "Derby." He subscribed himself with the affection of a kinsman and old playmate of Morvern and Lochaber.

"I will see that it reaches its destination," said Midwinter. "And now for the second task. The man Edom is not suspect and can travel by the high-road. I will send him with one who will direct him to my lady Norreys' party, which this day, as you tell me, sets out for Derbyshire. For yourself I counsel a discreeter part. Mark you, sir, you are sought by sundry gentlemen in Flambury as a Jacobite, and by Squire Thicknesse and his Hunt as a horse-thief. In this land suspicion is slow to waken, but in the end it runs fast and dies hard. Rumour of your figure, face, clothes, manner and bloodthirsty spirit will have already flown fifty miles. If you would be safe you must sink into Old England."

"I will sink into Acheron if it will better my purpose."

Midwinter regarded him critically. "Your modish clothes are in Kit's locker, and will duly be sent after you. Now you are the born charcoal-burner, save that your eyes are too clear and your finger nails unscorched. The disguise has served your purpose to-day, but it is too kenspeckle except in great woodlands. Mother Jonnet will find you a better. For the rest I will guide you, for I have the key."

"Where is this magic country?"

"All around you—behind the brake, across the hedgerow, under the branches. Some can stretch a hand and touch it—to others it is a million miles away."

"As a child I knew it," said Alastair, laughing. "I called it Fairyland."

Midwinter nodded. "Children are free of it, but their elders must earn admission. It is a safe land—at any rate it is secure from common perils."

"But it has its own dangers?"

"It makes a man look into his heart, and he may find that in it which destroys him. Also it is ambition's mortal foe. But if you walk in it you will come to Brightwell without obstruction, for the King's writ does not run in the greenwood."

"Whose is the law, then?" Alastair asked.

For answer Midwinter went to the window and flung it open. "My fiddle cannot speak except with free air about it," he said. "If any drunken rustic is on the heath he will think the pixies are abroad."

He picked up the violin which had been lying on the table behind him, and drew forth a slow broken music, which presently changed into a rhythmical air. At first it was like the twanging of fine wires in a wind, mingled with an echo of organ music heard over a valley full of tree-tops. It was tame and homely, yet with a childish inconsequence in it. Then it grew wilder, and though the organ notes remained it was an organ that had never sounded within church walls. The tune went with a steady rhythm, the rhythm of growing things in spring, of seasonal changes; but always ran the undercurrent of a leaping bacchanal madness, of long wild dances in bare places. The fiddle ceased on a soft note, and the fiddler fell to singing in a voice so low that the words and air only just rose above the pitch of silence. "Diana and her darling crew," he sang.

 

"Diana and her darling crew
Will pluck your fingers fine,
And lead you forth right pleasantly
To drink the honey wine,—
To drink the honey wine, my dear,
And sup celestial air,
And dance as the young angels dance,
Ah, God, that I were there!"

 

"Hers is the law," he said. "Diana, or as some say, Proserpina. Old folk call her the Queen of Elfhame. But over you and me, as baptized souls, she has no spell but persuasion. You can hear her weeping at midnight because her power is gone."

Then his mood changed. He laid down the fiddle and shouted on Mother Jonnet to bring supper. Edom, too, was sent for, and during the meal was closely catechized. He bore it well, professing no undue honesty beyond a good servant's, but stiff on his few modest scruples. When he heard Midwinter's plans for him, he welcomed them, and begged that in the choice of a horse his precarious balance and round thighs might be charitably considered. Alastair returned him the letter and watched him fold it up with the others and shove it inside his waistcoat. A prolonged study of that mild, concerned, faintly humorous face convinced him that Edom Lowrie was neither fox nor goose. He retired to bed to dream of Mr. Kyd's jolly countenance, which had mysteriously acquired a very sharp nose.

 

Edom went off in the early morning in company with the man called Kit and mounted on an ambling forest cob whose paces he whole-heartedly approved. Alastair washed himself like a Brahmin in a tub of hot water in the back-kitchen, and dressed himself in the garments provided by Mother Jonnet—frieze and leather and coarse woollen stockings and square-toed country shoes. The haze of yesterday had gone, and the sky was a frosty blue, with a sharp wind out of the north-east. He breakfasted with Midwinter off cold beef and beer and a dish of grilled ham, and then stood before the door breathing deep of the fresh chilly morning. The change of garb or the prospect before him had rid him of all the languor of the past week. He felt extraordinarily lithe and supple of limb, as in the old days when he had driven deer on the hills before the autumn dawn. Had he but had the free swing of a kilt at his thighs and the screes of Ben Aripol before him he would have recaptured his boyhood.

Midwinter looked at him with approval.

"You are clad as a man should be for Old England, and you have the legs for the road we travel. We do not ride, for we go where no horse can go. Put not your trust in horses, saith the Scriptures, which I take to mean that a man in the last resort should depend on his own shanks. Boot and spur must stick to the paths, and the paths are but a tiny bit of England. How sits the wind? North by east? There is snow coming, but not in the next thirty hours, and if it comes, it will not stay us. En avant, mon capitaine."

At a pace which was marvellous for one of his figure, Midwinter led the way over the heath, and then plunged into a tangled wood of oaks. He walked like a mountaineer, swinging from the hips, the body a little bent forward, and his long even strides devoured the ground. Even so, Alastair reminded himself, had the hunters at Glentarnit breasted the hill, while his boyish steps had toiled in their rear. Sometimes on level ground he would break into a run, as if his body's vigour needed an occasional burst of speed to chasten it. The young man exulted in the crisp air and the swift motion. The stiffness of body and mind which had beset him ever since he left Scotland vanished under this cordial, he lost his doubts and misgivings, and felt again that lifting ardour of the heart which is the glory of youth. His feet were tireless, his limbs were as elastic as a sword-blade, his breath as deep as a greyhound's. Two days before, jogging in miry lanes, he had seemed caught and stifled in a net; now he was on a hill-top, and free as the wind that plucked at his hair.

It is probable that Midwinter had for one of his purposes the creation of this happy mood, for he kept up the pace till after midday, when they came to a high deer-fence, beyond which stretched a ferny park. Here they slackened speed, their faces glowing like coals, and, skirting the park, reached a thatched hut which smoked in a dell. A woman stood at the door, who at the sight of the two would have retired inside, had not Midwinter whistled sharply on his fingers. She blinked and shaded her eyes with her hand against the frosty sunshine; then to Alastair's amazement she curtseyed deep.

Midwinter did not halt, but asked if Jeremy were at the stone pit.

"He be, Master," was her answer. "Will ye stop to break bread?"

"Nay, Jeremy shall feed us," he cried, and led the way up the dingle where a brook flowed in reedy pools. Presently there was a sound of axe-blows, and, rounding a corner, they came on a man cutting poles from a thicket of saplings. Again Midwinter whistled, and the woodcutter dropped his tool and turned with a grinning face, pulling at his forelock.

Midwinter sat down on a tree-trunk.

"Jeremy, lad, you behold two hungry men waiting to sample the art of the best cook in the Borton Hundreds. Have you the wherewithal, or must we go back to your wife?"

"I has, I surely has," was the answer. "Be pleased to be seated, kind sirs, and Jerry Tusser will have your meat ready before ye have rightly eased your legs. This way, Master, this way."

He led them to a pit where a fire burned between three stones and a kettle bubbled. Plates of coarse earthenware were brought from some hiding-place, and in five minutes Alastair was supping with an iron spoon as savoury a stew as he had ever eaten. The fruits of Jeremy's snares were in it, and the fruits of Jeremy's old fowling piece, and it was flavoured with herbs whose merits the world has forgotten. The hot meal quickened his vigour, and he was on his feet before Midwinter had done, like a dog eager to be on the road again.

He heard the man speak low to Midwinter. "Dook o' Kingston's horse," he heard and a hand was jerked northward.

In the afternoon the way lay across more open country, which Midwinter seemed to know like the palm of his hand, for he made points for some ridge or tree-top, and yet was never held up by brook or fence or dwelling. The air had grown sharper, clouds were banking in the east, and a wind was moaning in the tops of the high trees. Alastair seemed to have been restored to the clean world of his youth, after long absence among courts and cities. He noted the woodcock flitting between the bracken and the leafless boughs, and the mallards silently flighting from mere to stubble. A wedge of geese moving south made him turn his face skyward, and a little later he heard a wild whistle, and saw far up in the heavens a line of swans. His bodily strength was great as ever, but he had ceased to exult in it, and was ready to observe and meditate.

A highway cut the forest, and the two behind a bush of box watched a company of riders jingle down it. They were rustic fellows, poor horsemen most of them, mounted on every variety of beast, and at the head rode a smarter youth, with brand-new holsters out of which peeped the butts of ancient pistols.

"Recruits for the Duke of Kingston," Midwinter whispered. "They rendezvous at Nottingham, I hear. Think you they will make a good match of it with your Highland claymores?"

Night fell when they were still in the open, and Midwinter, after halting for a second to take his bearings, led the way to a wood which seemed to flow in and out of a shallow vale.

"The night will be cold, Captain Maclean, and a wise man takes comfort when he can find it. I could find you twenty lodgings, but we will take the warmest."

The woodland path ended in a road which seemed to be the avenue to a great house. It was soon very dark, and Alastair heard the rustling of animals which revived some ancestral knowledge, for he could distinguish the different noises which were rabbit, badger, stoat and deer. Down the avenue Midwinter led unconcernedly, and then turned off to a group of buildings which might have been stables. He bade Alastair wait while he went forward, and after some delay returned with a man who carried a lantern. The fellow, seen in the dim light, was from his dress an upper servant, and his bearing was in the extreme respectful. He bowed to Alastair, and led them through a gate into a garden, where their feet rang on flagged stones and rustled against box borders. A mass loomed up on the left which proved to be a great mansion.

The servant admitted them by a side door, and led them to a room, where he lit a dozen candles from his lantern, and revealed a panelled octagonal chamber hung with full-length portraits of forbidding gentlemen. There he left them, and when he returned it was with an elderly butler in undress, who bowed with the same deferent decorum.

"His lordship has gone since yesterday into Yorkshire, sir," he informed Midwinter. "I will have the usual rooms made ready for you at once, and you can sup in my lord's cabinet which is adjacent."

The two travellers soon found themselves warming their feet before a bright fire, while some thousands of volumes in calf and vellum looked down on them from the walls. They supped royally, but Alastair was too drowsy for talk, and his body had scarcely touched the sheets of his bed before he was asleep. He was woke before dawn, shaved and dressed by the butler, and given breakfast—with China tea in place of beer—in the same cabinet. It was still dark when the first servant of the night before conducted them out of the house by the same side door, led them across the shadowy park, and through a gate in the wall ushered them out to a dusky common, where trees in the creeping light stood up like gibbets. Midwinter led off at a trot, and at a trot they crossed the common and put more than one little valley behind them, so that when day dawned fully there was no sign in all the landscape of their night's lodging.

"Whose was the house?" Alastair asked, and was told—"We name no names in Old England."

The second day was to Alastair like the first for joy in the movement of travel, but the weather had grown bitterly cold and unfallen snow was heavy in the leaden sky. The distances were still clear, and though all the morning the road seemed to lie in hollows and dales, yet he had glimpses in the north of high blue ridges. Other signs told him that he was nearing the hills. The streams ceased to be links of sluggish pools, and chattered in rapids. He saw a water ouzel with its white cravat flash from the cover of a stone bridge. A flock of plovers which circled over one heath proved to be not green but golden. He told this to Midwinter, who nodded and pointed to a speck in the sky.

"There is better proof," he said.

The bird dropped closer to earth, and showed itself as neither sparrow-hawk nor kestrel, but merlin.

"We are nearing the hills," he said, "but Brightwell is far up the long valleys. We will not reach it before to-morrow night."

Just at the darkening the first snow fell. They were descending a steep boulder-strewn ridge to a stream of some size, which swirled in icy grey pools. Above them hung a tree-crowned hill now dim with night, and ere they reached the cover on its crest the flakes were thick about them. Midwinter grunted, and broke into a trot along the ridge. "Ill weather," he croaked, "and a harder bed than yestereen. We'll have to make shift with tinkler's fare. They told me at Harrowden that Job Lee's pack were in the Quarters Wood, and Job has some notion of hospitality. Job it must be, for the snow is fairly come."

In a broad coombe on the sheltered side of the ridge they came presently on a roaring fire of roots with three tents beside it, so placed that they were free alike from wind and smoke. The snow was falling hard, and beginning to drift, when Midwinter strode into the glow, and the man he called Job Lee—a long man with untied hair brushing his shoulders and a waistcoat of dyed deerskin—took his right hand between both of his and carried it to his lips. The new-comers shook themselves like dogs and were allotted one of the tents, thereby ousting two sleeping children who staggered to the hospitality of their father's bed. They supped off roast hare and strong ale, and slept till the wintry sun had climbed the Derbyshire hills and lit a world all virgin-white.

"The Almighty has sent a skid for our legs," Midwinter muttered as he watched the wet logs hiss in Job Lee's morning fire. "We can travel slow, for the roads will be heavy for my lady." So they did not start till the forenoon was well advanced, and as soon as possible exchanged the clogged and slippery hillside for a valley road. A wayside inn gave them a scrag of boiled mutton for dinner, and thereafter they took a short cut over a ridge of hill to reach the dale at whose head lay the house of Brightwell. On the summit they halted to reconnoitre, for the highway was visible there for many miles.

Just below them at the road side, where a tributary way branched off, stood an inn of some pretensions, whose sign was deciphered by Alastair's hawk eyes as a couchant stag. Fresh snow was massing on the horizon, but for the moment the air was diamond clear. There had been little traffic on the road since morning and that only foot passengers, with one horse's tracks coming down the valley. These tracks did not pass the door, therefore the horseman must be within. There were no signs of a coach's wheels, so Lady Norreys had not yet arrived. He lifted his eyes and looked down the stream. There, a mile or so distant, moved a dark cluster, a coach apparently and attendant riders.

The snow was on them again and Alastair bowed his head to the blast. "They will lie at that inn," said Midwinter. "Brightwell is half a dozen miles on, and the road is dangerous. You will, of course, join them. I will accompany you to the door and leave you, for I have business in Sherwood that cannot wait."

Again Alastair peered through the snow. He saw a man come out of the inn door as in a great hurry, mount a waiting horse, and clatter off up the vale—a tall man in a horseman's cloak with a high collar. Then a little later came the vanguard of the approaching party to bespeak quarters. The two men watched till the coach came abreast the door, and a slender hooded figure stepped from it. Then they began to make their way down the hillside.