I dropped wearily from my horse and stumbled forward to the door. ’Twas close shut, but rays of light came through the chinks at the foot, and the great light in the further window lit up the ground for some yards. I knocked loudly with my sword-hilt. Stillness seemed to reign within, save that from some distant room a faint sound of men’s voices was brought. A most savory smell stole out to the raw air and revived my hunger with hopes of supper.
Again I knocked, this time rudely, and the door rattled on its hinges. This brought some signs of life from within. I could hear a foot on the stone floor of a passage, a bustling as of many folk running hither and thither, and a great barking of a sheep-dog. Of a sudden the door was flung open, a warm blaze of light rushed forth, and I stood blinking before the master of the house.
He was a tall, grizzled man of maybe fifty years, thin, with a stoop in his back that all hill-folk have, and a face brown with sun and wind. I judged him fifty, but he may have been younger by ten years, for in that desert men age the speedier. His dress was dirty and ragged in many places, and in one hand he carried a pistol, which he held before him as if for protection. He stared at me for a second.
“Wha are ye that comes dirlin’ here on sic a nicht?” said he, and I give his speech as I remember it. As he uttered the words, he looked me keenly in the face, and I felt his thin, cold glance piercing to the roots of my thoughts. I liked the man ill, for, what with his lean figure and sour countenance, he was far different from the jovial, well-groomed fellows who will give you greeting at any wayside inn from Calais to Bordeaux.
“You ask a strange question, and one little needing answer. If a man has wandered for hours in bog-holes, he will be in no mind to stand chaffering at inn doors. I seek a night’s lodging for my horse and myself.”
“It’s little we can give you, for it’s a bare, sinfu’ land,” said he, “but such as I ha’e ye’re welcome to. Bide a minute, and I’ll bring a licht to tak’ ye to the stable.”
He was gone down the passage for a few seconds, and returned with a rushlight encased against the wind in a wicker covering. The storm made it flicker and flare till it sent dancing shadows over the dark walls of the house. The stable lay round by the back end, and thither poor Saladin and his master stumbled over a most villainous rough ground. The place, when found, was no great thing to boast of — a cold shed, damp with rain, with blaffs of wind wheezing through it; and I was grieved to think of my horse’s nightly comfort. The host snatched from a rack a truss of hay, which by its smell was old enough, and tossed it into the manger. “There ye are, and it’s mair than mony a Christian gets in thae weary days.”
Then he led the way back into the house. We entered a draughty passage with a window at one end, broken in part, through which streamed the cold air. A turn brought me into a little square room, where a fire flickered and a low lamp burned on the table. ’Twas so home-like and peaceful that my heart went out to it, and I thanked my fate for the comfortable lodging I had chanced on. Mine host stirred the blaze and bade me strip off my wet garments. He fetched me an armful of rough homespuns, but I cared little to put them on, so I e’en sat in my shirt and waited on the drying of my coat. My mother’s portrait, the one by Grizot, which I have had set in gold and wear always near my heart, dangled to my lap, and I took this for an evil omen. I returned it quick to its place, the more so because I saw the landlord’s lantern-jaw close at the sight, and his cold eyes twinkle. Had I been wise, too, I would have stripped my rings from my fingers ere I began this ill-boding travel, for it does not behoove a gentleman to be sojourning among beggars with gold about him.
“Have ye come far the day?” the man asked, in his harsh voice. “Ye’re gey-like splashed wi’ dirt, so I jalouse ye cam ower the Angel’s Ladder.”
“Angel’s ladder!” quoth I, “devil’s ladder I call it! for a more blackguardly place I have not clapped eyes on since I first mounted horse.”
“Angel’s Ladder they call it,” said the man, to all appearance never heeding my words, “for there, mony a year syne, an holy man of God, one Ebenezer Clavershaws, preached to a goodly gathering on the shining ladder seen by the patriarch Jacob at Bethel, which extended from earth to heaven. ’Twas a rich discourse, and I have it still in my mind.”
“’Twas more likely to have been a way to the Evil One for me. Had I but gone a further step many a time, I should have been giving my account ere this to my Maker. But a truce to this talk. ’Twas not to listen to such that I came here; let me have supper, the best you have, and a bottle of whatever wine you keep in this accursed place. Burgundy is my choice.”
“Young man,” the fellow said gravely, looking at me with his unpleasing eyes, “you are one who loves the meat that perisheth rather than the unsearchable riches of God’s grace. Oh, be warned while yet there is time. You know not the delights of gladsome communion wi’ Him, which makes the moss-hags and heather-busses more fair than the roses of Sharon or the balmy plains of Gilead. Oh, be wise and turn, for now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation!”
SacrÃ©! what madman have I fallen in with, thought I, who talks in this fashion. I had heard of the wild deeds of those in our own land who call themselves Huguenots, and I was not altogether without fear. But my appetite was keen, and my blood was never of the coolest.
“Peace with your nonsense, sirrah,” I said sternly; “what man are you who come and prate before your guests, instead of fetching their supper? Let me have mine at once, and no more of your Scripture.”
As I spoke, I looked him angrily in the face, and my bearing must have had some effect upon him, for he turned suddenly and passed out.
A wench appeared, a comely slip of a girl, with eyes somewhat dazed and timorous, and set the table with viands. There was a moor-fowl, well-roasted and tasty to the palate, a cut of salted beef, and for wine, a bottle of French claret of excellent quality. ’Twas so much in excess of my expectation, that I straightway fell into a good humor, and the black cloud of dismay lifted in some degree from my wits. I filled my glass and looked at it against the fire-glow, and dreamed that ’twas an emblem of the after course of my life. Who knew what fine things I might come to yet, though now I was solitary in a strange land?
The landlord came in and took away the remnants himself. He looked at me fixedly more than once, and in his glance I read madness, greed, and hatred. I feared his look, and was glad to see him leave, for he made me feel angry and a little awed. However, thought I, ’tis not the first time I have met a churlish host, and I filled my glass again.
The fire bickered cheerily, lighting up the room and comforting my cold skin. I drew my chair close and stretched out my legs to the blaze, till in a little, betwixt heat and weariness, I was pleasantly drowsy. I fell to thinking of the events of the day and the weary road I had traveled; then to an earlier time, when I first came to Scotland, and my hopes were still unbroken. After all this I began to mind me of the pleasant days in France; for, though I had often fared ill enough there, all was forgotten but the good fortune; and I had soon built out of my brain a France which was liker Paradise than anywhere on earth. Every now and then a log would crackle or fall, and so wake me with a start, for the fire was of that sort which is common in hilly places — a great bank of peat with wood laid athwart. Blue, pungent smoke came out in rings and clouds, which smelt gratefully in my nostrils after the black out-of-doors.
By and by, what with thinking of the past, what with my present comfort, and what with an ever hopeful imagination, my prospects came to look less dismal. ’Twas true that I was here in a most unfriendly land with little money and no skill of the country. But Scotland was but a little place, after all. I must come to Leith in time, where I could surely meet a French skipper who would take me over, money or no. You will ask, whoever may chance to read this narrative, why, in Heaven’s name, I did not turn and go back to Ayr, the port from which I had come? The reason is not far to seek. The whole land behind me stank in my nostrils, for there dwelt Quentin Kennedy, and there lay the scene of my discomfiture and my sufferings. Faugh! the smell of that wretched moor-road is with me yet. So, with thinking one way and another, I came to a decision to go forward in any case, and trust to God and my own good fortune. After this I must have ceased to have any thoughts, and dropped off snugly to sleep.
I wakened, at what time I know not, shivering, with a black fire before my knees. The room was black with darkness, save where through a chink in the window-shutter there came a gleam of pale moonlight. I sprang up in haste and called for a servant to show me to my sleeping room, but the next second I could have wished the word back, for I feared that no servant would be awake and at hand. To my mind there seemed something passing strange in thus leaving a guest to slumber by the fire.
To my amazement, the landlord himself came to my call, bearing a light in his hand. I was reasonably surprised, for though I knew not the hour of the night, I judged from the state of the fire that it must have been far advanced.
“I had fallen asleep,” I said, in apology, “and now would finish what I have begun. Show me my bed.”
“It’ll be a dark nicht and a coorse, out-bye,” said the man, as he led the way solemnly from the room, up a rickety stair, down a mirk passage to a chamber which, from the turnings of the house, I guessed to be facing the east. ’Twas a comfortless place, and ere I could add a word I found the man leaving the room with the light. “You’ll find your way to bed in the dark,” quoth he, and I was left in blackness.
I sat down on the edge of the bed, half-stupid with sleep, my teeth chattering with the cold, listening to the gusts of wind battering against the little window. ‘Faith! thought I, this is the worst entertainment I ever had, and I have made trial of many. Yet I need not complain, for I have had a good fire and a royal supper, and my present discomfort is due in great part to my own ill habit of drowsiness. I rose to undress, for my bones were sore after the long day’s riding, when, by some chance, I moved forward to the window and opened it to look on the night.
’Twas wintry weather outside, though but the month of August. The face of the hills fronting me were swathed in white mist, which hung low even to the banks of the stream. There was a great muttering in the air of swollen water, for the rain had ceased, and the red waves were left to roll down the channel to the lowlands and make havoc of meadow and steading. The sky was cumbered with clouds, and no clear light of the moon came through; but since ’twas nigh the time of the full moon the night was not utterly dark.
I lingered for maybe five minutes in this posture, and then I heard that which made me draw in my head and listen the more intently. A thud of horses’ hoofs on the wet ground came to my ear. A second, and it was plainer, the noise of some half-dozen riders clearly approaching the inn. ’Twas a lonesome place, and I judged it strange that company should come so late.
I flung myself on the bed in my clothes, and could almost have fallen asleep as I was, so weary was my body. But there was that in my mind which forbade slumber, a vague uneasiness as of some ill approaching, which it behooved me to combat. Again and again I tried to drive it from me as mere cowardice, but again it returned to vex me. There was nothing for it but that I should lie on my back and bide what might come.
Then again I heard a sound, this time from a room beneath. ’Twas as if men were talking softly, and moving to and fro. My curiosity was completely aroused, and I thought it no shame to my soldierly honor to slip from my room and gather what was the purport of their talk. At such a time, and in such a place, it boded no good for me, and the evil face of the landlord was ever in my memory. The staircase creaked a little as it felt my weight, but it had been built for heavier men, and I passed it in safety. Clearly the visitors were in the room where I had supped.
“Will we ha’e muckle wark wi’ him, think ye?” I heard one man ask.
“Na, na,” said another, whom I knew for mine host, “he’s a foreigner, a man frae a fremt land, and a’ folk ken they’re little use. Forbye, I had stock o’ him mysel’, and I think I could mak’ his bit ribs crack thegither. He’ll no’ be an ill customer to deal wi’.”
“But will he no’ be a guid hand at the swird? There’s no yin o’ us here muckle at that.”
“Toots,” said another, “we’ll e’en get him intil a corner, where he’ll no git leave to stir an airm.”
I had no stomach for more. With a dull sense of fear I crept back to my room, scarce heeding in my anger whether I made noise or not. Good God! thought I, I have traveled by land and sea to die in a moorland alehouse by the hand of common robbers! My heart grew hot at the thought of the landlord, for I made no doubt but it was my jewels that had first set his teeth. I loosened my sword in its scabbard; and now I come to think of it, ’twas a great wonder that it had not been taken away from me while I slept. I could only guess that the man had been afraid to approach me before the arrival of his confederates. I gripped my sword-hilt; ah, how often had I felt its touch under kindlier circumstances — when I slew the boar in the woods at Belmont, when I made the Sieur de Biran crave pardon before my feet, when I —— But peace with such memories! At all events, if Jean de Rohaine must die among ruffians, unknown and forgotten, he would finish his days like a gentleman of courage. I prayed to God that I might only have the life of the leader.
But this world is sweet to all men, and as I awaited death in that dark room, it seemed especially fair to live. I was but in the prime of my age, on the near side of forty, hale in body, a master of the arts and graces. Were it not passing hard that I should perish in this wise? I looked every way for a means of escape. There was but one — the little window which looked upon the ground east of the inn. ’Twas just conceivable that a man might leap it and make his way to the hills, and so baffle his pursuers. Two thoughts deterred me; first, that I had no horse and could not continue my journey; second, that in all likelihood there would be a watch set below. My heart sank within me, and I ceased to think.
For, just at that moment, I heard a noise below as of men leaving the room. I shut my lips and waited. Here, I concluded, is death coming to meet me. But the next moment the noise had stopped, and ’twas evident that the conclave was not yet closed. ’Tis a strange thing, the mind of man, for I, who had looked with despair at my chances a minute agone, now, at the passing of this immediate danger, plucked up heart, clapped my hat on my head, and opened the window.
The night air blew chill, but all seemed silent below. So, very carefully I hung over the ledge, gripped the sill with my hands, swung my legs into the air, and dropped. I lighted on a tussock of grass and rolled over on my side, only to recover myself in an instant and rise to my feet, and, behold, at my side, a tall man keeping sentinel on horseback.
At this the last flicker of hope died in my bosom. The man never moved or spake, but only stared fixedly at me. Yet there was that in his face and bearing which led me to act as I did.
“If you are a man of honor,” I burst out, “though you are engaged in an accursed trade, dismount and meet me in combat. Your spawn will not be out for a little time, and the night is none so dark. If I must die, I would die at least in the open air, with my foe before me.”
My words must have found some answering chord in the man’s breast, for he presently spoke, and asked me my name and errand in the countryside. I told him in a dozen words, and at my tale he shrugged his shoulders.
“I am in a great mind,” says he, “to let you go. I am all but sick of this butcher work, and would fling it to the winds at a word. ’Tis well enough for the others, who are mongrel bred, but it ill becomes a man of birth like me, who am own cousin to the Maxwells o’ Drurie.”
He fell for a very little time into a sort of musing, tugging at his beard like a man in perplexity. Then he spoke out suddenly:
“See you yon tuft of willows by the water? There’s a space behind it where a horse and man might stand well concealed. There is your horse,” and he pointed to a group of horses standing tethered by the roadside; “lead him to the place I speak of, and trust to God for the rest. I will raise a scare that you’re off the other airt, and, mind, that whenever you see the tails o’ us, you mount and ride for life in the way I tell you. You should win to Drumlanrig by morning, where there are quieter folk. Now, mind my bidding, and dae’t before my good will changes.”
“May God do so to you in your extremity! If ever I meet you on earth I will repay you for your mercy. But a word with you. Who is that man?” and I pointed to the house.
The fellow laughed dryly. “It’s easy seen you’re no acquaint here, or you would ha’e heard o’ Long Jock o’ the Hirsel. There’s mony a man would face the devil wi’ a regiment o’ dragoons at his back, that would flee at a glint from Jock’s een. You’re weel quit o’ him. But be aff afore the folk are stirring.”
I needed no second bidding, but led Saladin with all speed to the willows, where I made him stand knee-keep in the water within cover of the trees, while I crouched by his side. ’Twas none too soon, for I was scarce in hiding when I heard a great racket in the house, and the sound of men swearing and mounting horse. There was a loud clattering of hoofs, which shortly died away, and left the world quiet, save for the broil of the stream and the loud screaming of moorbirds.