All this has taken a long time to set down, but there was little time in the acting. Scarce half an hour had passed from my waking by the black fire till I found myself up to the waist in the stream. I made no further delay, but, as soon as the air was quiet, led Saladin out as stilly as I could on the far side of the willows, clambered on his back (for I was too sore in body to mount in any other fashion), and was riding for dear life along the moor road in the contrary direction to that from which I had come on the night before. The horse had plainly been well fed, since, doubtless, the ruffians had marked him for their own plunder. He covered the ground in gallant fashion, driving up jets and splashes of rain water from the pools in the way. Mile after mile was passed with no sound of pursuers; one hill gave place to another; the stream grew wider and more orderly; but still I kept up the breakneck pace, fearing to slacken rein. Fifteen miles were covered, as I judged, before I saw the first light of dawn in the sky, a red streak in a gray desert; and brought my horse down to a trot, thanking God that at last I was beyond danger.
I was sore in body, with clammy garments sticking to my skin, aching in back and neck, unslept, well-nigh as miserable as a man could be. But great as was my bodily discomfort, ’twas not one tittle to compare with the sickness of my heart. I had been driven to escape from a hostel by a window like a common thief; compelled to ride, — nay, there was no use in disguising it, — to flee, before a pack of ill-bred villains; I, a gentleman of France, who had ruffled it with the best of them in my fit of prosperity. Again and again I questioned with myself whether I had not done better to die in that place, fighting as long as the breath was in my body. Of this I am sure, at any rate, that it would have been the way more soothing to my pride. I argued the matter with myself, according to the most approved logic, but could come no nearer to the solution. For while I thought the picture of myself dying with my back to the wall the more heroical and gentleman-like, it yet went sore against me to think of myself, with all my skill of the sword and the polite arts, perishing in a desert place at the hand of common cut-throats. ’Twas no fear of death, I give my word of honor; that was a weakness never found in our race. Courage is a virtue I take no credit for; ’tis but a matter of upbringing. But a man loves to make some noise in the earth ere he leaves it, or at least to pass with blowings of the trumpet and some manner of show. To this day I cannot think of any way by which I could have mended my conduct. I can but set it down as a mischance of Providence, which meets all men in their career, but of which no man of spirit cares to think.
The sun rose clear, but had scarce shone for an hour, when, as is the way in this land, a fresh deluge of rain came on, and the dawn, which had begun in crimson, ended in a dull level of gray. I had never been used with much foul weather of this sort, so I bore it ill. ’Twas about nine of the morning when I rode into the village of Drumlanrig, a jumble of houses in the lee of a great wood, which runs up to meet the descending moorlands. Some ragged brats, heedless of the weather, played in the street, if one may call it by so fine a name; but for the most part the houses seemed quite deserted. A woman looked incuriously at me; a man who was carrying sacks scarce raised his head to view me; the whole place was like a dwelling of the dead. I have since learned the reason, which was no other than the accursed butchery on which I had quarreled with Quentin Kennedy, and so fallen upon misfortune. The young and manly were all gone; some to the hills for hiding, some to the town prisons, some across the seas to work in the plantations, and some on that long journey from which no man returns. My heart boils within me to this day to think of it — but there! it is long since past, and I have little need to be groaning over it now.
There was no inn in the place, but I bought bread from the folk of a little farm-steading at one end of the village street. They would scarce give it to me at first, and ’twas not till they beheld my woebegone plight that their hearts relented. Doubtless they took me for one of the soldiers who had harried them and theirs, little guessing that ’twas all for their sake that I was in such evil case. I did not tarry to ask the road, for Leith was too far distant for the people in that place to know it. Of this much I was sure, that it lay to the northeast, so I took my way in that direction, shaping my course by the sun. There was a little patch of green fields, a clump of trees, and a quiet stream beside the village; but I had scarce ridden half a mile beyond it when once more the moor swallowed me up in its desert of moss and wet heather.
I was now doubly dispirited. My short exhilaration of escape had gone, and all the pangs of wounded pride and despair seized upon me, mingled with a sort of horror of the place I had come through. Whenever I saw a turn of hill which brought the Angel’s Ladder to my mind, I shivered in spite of myself, and could have found it in my heart to turn and flee. In addition, I would have you remember, I was soaked to the very skin, my eyes weary with lack of sleep, and my legs cramped with much riding.
The place in the main was moorland, with steep, desolate hills on my left. On the right to the south I had glimpses of a fairer country, woods and distant fields, seen for an instant through the driving mist. In a trice France was back in my mind, for I could not see an acre of green land without coming nigh to tears. Yet, and perhaps ’twas fortunate for me, such glimpses were all too rare. For the most part, the way was a long succession of sloughs and mires, with here a piece of dry, heathy ground, and there an impetuous water coming down from the highlands. Saladin soon fell tired, and, indeed, small wonder, since he had come many miles, and his fare had been of the scantiest. He would put his foot in a bog-hole and stumble so sharply that I would all but lose my seat. Then, poor beast, he would take shame to himself, and pick his way as well as his weary legs would suffer him. ’Twas an evil plight for man and steed, and I knew not which to pity the more.
At noon, I came to the skirts of a long hill, whose top was hidden with fog, but which I judged to be high and lonesome. I met a man — the first I had seen since Drumlanrig — and asked him my whereabouts. I learned that the hill was called Queen’s Berry, and that in some dozen miles I would strike the high road to Edinburgh. I could get not another word out of him, but must needs content myself with this crumb of knowledge. The road in front was no road, nothing but a heathery moor, with walls of broken stones seaming it like the lines of sewing in an old coat. Gray broken hills came up for a minute, as a stray wind blew the mist aside, only to disappear the next instant in a ruin of cloud.
From this place I mark the beginning of the most wretched journey in my memory. Till now I had had some measure of bodily strength to support me. Now it failed, and a cold shivering fit seized on my vitals, and more than once I was like to have fallen from my horse. A great stupidity came over my brain; I could call up no remembrance to cheer me, but must plod on in a horror of darkness. The cause was not far distant — cold, wet, and despair. I tried to swallow some of the rain-soaked bread in my pouch, but my mouth was as dry as a skin. I dismounted to drink at a stream, but the water could hardly trickle down my throat so much did it ache. ’Twas as if I were on the eve of an ague, and in such a place it were like to be the end of me.
Had there been a house, I should have craved shelter. But one effect of my sickness was, that I soon strayed woefully from my path, such as it was, and found myself in an evil case with bogs and steep hillsides. I had much to do in keeping Saladin from danger; and had I not felt the obligation to behave like a man, I should have flung the reins on his neck and let him bear himself and his master to destruction. Again and again I drove the wish from my mind—”As well die in a bog-hole or break your neck over a crag as dwine away with ague in the cold heather, as you are like to do,” said the tempter. But I steeled my heart, and made a great resolve to keep one thing, though I should lose all else — some shreds of my manhood.
Toward evening I grew so ill that I was fain, when we came to a level place, to lay my head on Saladin’s neck, and let him stumble forward. My head swam, and my back ached so terribly that I guessed feverishly that someone had stabbed me unawares. The weather cleared just about even, and the light of day flickered out in a watery sunset. ’Twas like the close of my life, I thought, a gray ill day and a poor ending. The notion depressed me miserably. I felt a kinship with that feeble evening light, a kinship begotten of equality in weakness. However, all would soon end; my day must presently have its evening; and then, if all tales were true, and my prayers had any efficacy, I should be in a better place.
But when once the night in its blackness had set in, I longed for the light again, however dismal it might be. A ghoulish song, one which I had heard long before, was ever coming to my memory:
La pluye nous a débuez et lavez, Et le soleil desséchez et noirciz: Pies, corbeaulx — .
With a sort of horror I tried to drive it from my mind. A dreadful heaviness oppressed me. Fears which I am ashamed to set down thronged my brain. The way had grown easier, or I make no doubt my horse had fallen. ’Twas a track we were on, I could tell by the greater freedom with which Saladin stepped. God send, I prayed, that we be near to folk, and that they be kindly; this prayer I said many times to the accompaniment of the whistling of the doleful wind. Every gust pained me. I was the sport of the weather, a broken puppet tossed about by circumstance.
Now an answer was sent to me, and that a speedy one. I came of a sudden to a clump of shrubbery beside a wall. Then at a turn of the way a light shone through, as from a broad window among trees. A few steps more and I stumbled on a gate, and turned Saladin’s head up a pathway. The rain dripped heavily from the bushes, a branch slashed me in the face, and my weariness grew tenfold with every second. I dropped like a log before the door, scarce looking to see whether the house was great or little; and, ere I could knock or make any call, swooned away dead on the threshold.