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THE LETTER FROM THE SHIP
DAYLIGHT showed us how solitary the inn stood. It was plainly hard upon the sea, yet out of all view of it, and beset on every side with scabbit hills of sand. There was, indeed, only one thing in the nature of a prospect, where there stood out over a brae the two sails of a windmill, like an ass's ears, but with the ass quite hidden. It was strange (after the wind rose, for at first it was dead calm) to see the turning and following of each other of these great sails behind the hillock. Scarce any road came by there; but a number of footways travelled among the bents in all directions up to Mr. Bazin's door. The truth is, he was a man of many trades, not any one of them honest, and the position of his inn was the best of his livelihood. Smugglers frequented it; political agents and forfeited persons bound across the water came there to await their passages; and I daresay there was worse behind, for a whole family might have been butchered in that house and nobody the wiser.
I slept little and ill. Long ere it was day, I had slipped from beside my bedfellow, and was warming myself at the fire or walking to and fro before the door. Dawn broke mighty sullen; but a little after, sprang up a wind out of the west, which burst the clouds, let through the sun, and set the mill to the turning. There was something of spring in the sunshine, or else it was in my heart; and the appearing of the great sails one after another from behind the hill, diverted me extremely. At times I could hear a creak of the machinery; and by half-past eight of the day, and I thought this dreary, desert place was like a paradise.
For all which, as the day drew on and nobody came near, I began to be aware of an uneasiness that I could scarce explain. It seemed there was trouble afoot; the sails of the windmill, as they came up and went down over the hill, were like persons spying; and outside of all fancy, it was surely a strange neighbourhood and house for a young lady to be brought to dwell in.
At breakfast, which we took late, it was manifest that James More was in some danger or perplexity; manifest that Alan was alive to the same, and watched him close; and this appearance of duplicity upon the one side, and vigilance upon the other, held me on live coals. The meal was no sooner over than James seemed to come began to make apologies. He had an appointment of a private nature in the town (it was with the French nobleman, he told me), and we would please excuse him till about noon. Meanwhile he carried his daughter aside to the far end of the room, where he seemed to speak rather earnestly and she to listen with much inclination.
"I am caring less and less about this man James," said Alan. "There's something no right with the man James, and I shouldnae wonder but what Alan Breck would give an eye to him this day. I would like fine to see yon French nobleman, Davie; and I daresay you could find an employ to yoursel, and that would be to speir at the lassie for some news o' your affair. Just tell it to her plainly — tell her ye're a muckle ass at the off — set; and then, if I were you, and ye could do it naitural, I would just mint to her I was in some kind of a danger; a' weemenfolk likes that."
"I cannae lee, Alan, I cannae do it naitural," says I, mocking him.
"The more fool you!" says he. "Then ye'll can tell her that I recommended it; that'll set her to the laughing; and I wouldnae wonder but what that was the next best. But see to the pair of them! If I didnae feel just sure of the lassie, and that she was awful pleased and chief with Alan, I would think there was some kind of hocus-pocus about you."
"And is she so pleased with ye, then, Alan?" I asked.
"She thinks a heap of me," says he. "And I'm no like you: I'm one that can tell. That she does — she thinks a heap of Alan. And troth! I'm thinking a good deal of him mysel; and with your permission, Shaws, I'll be getting a wee yont amang the bents, so that I can see what way James goes."
One after another went, till I was left alone beside the breakfast table; James to Dunkirk, Alan dogging him, Catriona up the stairs to her own chamber. I could very well understand how she should avoid to be alone with me; yet was none the better pleased with it for that, and bent my mind to entrap her to an interview before the men returned. Upon the whole, the best appeared to me to do like Alan. If I was out of view among the sandhills, the fine morning would decoy her forth; and once I had her in the open, I could please myself.
No sooner said than done; nor was I long under the bield of a hillock before she appeared at the inn door, looked here and there, and (seeing nobody) set out by a path that led directly seaward, and by which I followed her. I was in no haste to make my presence known; the further she went I made sure of the longer hearing to my suit; and the ground being all sandy it was easy to follow her unheard. The path rose and came at last to the head of a knowe. Thence I had a picture for the first time of what a desolate wilderness that inn stood hidden in; where was no man to be seen, nor any house of man, except just Bazin's and the windmill. Only a little further on, the sea appeared and two or three ships upon it, pretty as a drawing. One of these was extremely close in to be so great a vessel; and I was aware of a shock of new suspicion, when I recognised the trim of the Seahorse. What should an English ship be doing so near in to France? Why was Alan brought into her neighbourhood, and that in a place so far from any hope of rescue? and was it by accident, or by design, that the daughter of James More should walk that day to the seaside?
Presently I came forth behind her in the front of the sandhills and above the beach. It was here long and solitary; with a man-o'-war's boat drawn up about the middle of the prospect, and an officer in charge and pacing the sands like one who waited. I sat down where the rough grass a good deal covered me, and looked for what should follow. Catriona went straight to the boat; the officer met her with civilities; they had ten words together; I saw a letter changing hands; and there was Catriona returning. At the same time, as if this were all her business on the Continent, the boat shoved off and was headed for the Seahorse. But I observed the officer to remain behind and disappear among the bents.
I liked the business little; and the more I considered of it, liked it less. Was it Alan the officer was seeking? or Catriona? She drew near with her head down, looking constantly on the sand, and made so tender a picture that I could not bear to doubt her innocence. The next, she raised her face and recognised me; seemed to hesitate, and then came on again, but more slowly, and I thought with a changed colour. And at that thought, all else that was upon my bosom — fears, suspicions, the care of my friend's life — was clean swallowed up; and I rose to my feet and stood waiting her in a drunkenness of hope.
I gave her "good morning" as she came up, which she returned with a good deal of composure.
"Will you forgive my having followed you?" said I.
"I know you are always meaning kindly," she replied; and then, with a little outburst, "but why will you be sending money to that man! It must not be."
"I never sent it for him," said I, "but for you, as you know well."
"And you have no right to be sending it to either one of us," she said. "David, it is not right."
"It is not, it is all wrong," said I, "and I pray God he will help this dull fellow (if it be at all possible) to make it better. Catriona, this is no kind of life for you to lead; and I ask your pardon for the word, but yon man is no fit father to take care of you."
"Do not be speaking of him, even!" was her cry.
"And I need speak of him no more; it is not of him that I am thinking, O, be sure of that!" says I. "I think of the one thing. I have been alone now this long time in Leyden; and when I was by way of at my studies, still I was thinking of that. Next Alan came, and I went among soldier-men to their big dinners; and still I had the same thought. And it was the same before, when I had her there beside me. Catriona, do you see this napkin at my throat! You cut a corner from it once and then cast it from you. They're your colours now; I wear them in my heart. My dear, I cannot be wanting you. O, try to put up with me!"
I stepped before her so as to intercept her walking on.
"Try to put up with me," I was saying, "try and bear me with a little."
Still she had never the word, and a fear began to rise in me like a fear of death.
"Catriona," I cried, gazing on her hard, "is it a mistake again? Am I quite lost?"
She raised her face to me, breathless.
"Do you want me, Davie, truly?" said she, and I scarce could hear her say it.
"I do that," said I. "O, sure you know it — I do that."
"I have nothing left to give or to keep back," said she. "I was all yours from the first day, if you would have had a gift of me!" she said,
This was on the summit of a brae; the place was windy and conspicuous, we were to be seen there even from the English ship; but I kneeled down before her in the sand, and embraced her knees, and burst into that storm of weeping that I thought it must have broken me. All thought was wholly beaten from my mind by the vehemency of my discomposure. I knew not where I was. I had forgot why I was happy; only I knew she stooped, and I felt her cherish me to her face and bosom, and heard her words out of a whirl.
"Davie," she was saying, "O, Davie, is this what you think of me! Is it so that you were caring for poor me! O, Davie, Davie!"
With that she wept also, and our tears were commingled in a perfect gladness.
It might have been ten in the day before I came to a clear sense of what a mercy had befallen me; and sitting over against her, with her hands in mine, gazed in her face, and laughed out loud for pleasure like a child, and called her foolish and kind names. I have never seen the place that looked so pretty as those bents by Dunkirk; and the windmill sails, as they bobbed over the knowe, were like a tune of music.
I know not how much longer we might have continued to forget all else besides ourselves, had I not chanced upon a reference to her father, which brought us to reality.
"My little friend," I was calling her again and again, rejoicing to summon up the past by the sound of it, and to gaze across on her, and to be a little distant — "My little friend, now you are mine altogether; mine for good, my little friend and that man's no longer at all."
There came a sudden whiteness in her face, she plucked her hands from mine.
"Davie, take me away from him!" she cried. "There's something wrong; he's not true. There will be something wrong; I have a dreadful terror here at my heart. What will he be wanting at all events with that King's ship? What will this word be saying?" And she held the letter forth. "My mind misgives me, it will be some ill to Alan. Open it, Davie — open it and see."
I took it, and looked at it, and shook my head.
"No," said I, "it goes against me, I cannot open a man's letter."
"Not to save your friend?" she cried.
"I cannae tell," said I. "I think not. If I was only sure!"
"And you have but to break the seal!" said she.
"I know it," said I, "but the thing goes against me."
"Give it here," said she, "and I will open it myself."
"Nor you neither," said I. "You least of all. It concerns your father, and his honour, dear, which we are both misdoubting. No question but the place is dangerous-like, and the English ship being here, and your father having word from it, and yon officer that stayed ashore. He would not be alone either; there must be more along with him; I daresay we are spied upon this minute. Ay, no doubt, the letter should be opened; but somehow, not by you nor me."
I was about thus far with it, and my spirit very much overcome with a sense of danger and hidden enemies, when I spied Alan, come back again from following James and walking by himself among the sand-hills. He was in his soldier's coat, of course, and mighty fine; but I could not avoid to shudder when I thought how little that jacket would avail him, if he were once caught and flung in a skiff, and carried on board of the Seahorse, a deserter, a rebel, and now a condemned murderer.
"There," said I, "there is the man that has the best right to open it: or not, as he thinks fit."
With which I called upon his name, and we both stood up to be a mark for him.
"If it is so — if it be more disgrace — will you can bear it?" she asked, looking upon me with a burning eye.
"I was asked something of the same question when I had seen you but the once," said I. "What do you think I answered? That if I liked you as I thought I did — and O, but I like you better! — I would marry you at his gallows' foot."
The blood rose in her face; she came close up and pressed upon me, holding my hand: and it was so that we awaited Alan.
He came with one of his queer smiles. "What was I telling ye, David?" says he.
"There is a time for all things, Alan," said I, "and this time is serious. How have you sped? You can speak out plain before this friend of ours."
"I have been upon a fool's errand," said he.
"I doubt we have done better than you, then," said I; "and, at least, here is a great deal of matter that you must judge of. Do you see that?" I went on, pointing to the ship. "That is the Seahorse, Captain Palliser."
"I should ken her, too," says Alan. "I had fyke enough with her when she was stationed in the Forth. But what ails the man to come so close?"
"I will tell you why he came there first," said I. "It was to bring this letter to James More. Why he stops here now that it's delivered, what it's likely to be about, why there's an officer hiding in the bents, and whether or not it's probable that he's alone — I would rather you considered for yourself."
"A letter to James More?" said he.
"The same," said I.
"Well, and I can tell ye more than that," said Alan. "For the last night, when you were fast asleep, I heard the man colloguing with some one in the French, and then the door of that inn to be opened and shut."
"Alan!" cried I, "you slept all night, and I am here to prove it."
"Ay, but I would never trust Alan whether he was asleep or waking!" says he. "But the business looks bad. Let's see the letter."
I gave it him.
"Catriona," said he, "you have to excuse me, my dear; but there's nothing less than my fine bones upon the cast of it, and I'll have to break this seal."
"It is my wish," said Catriona.
He opened it, glanced it through, and flung his hand in the air.
"The stinking brock!" says he, and crammed the paper in his pocket. "Here, let's get our things together. This place is fair death to me." And he began to walk towards the inn.
It was Catriona that spoke the first. "He has sold you?" she asked.
"Sold me, my dear," said Alan. "But thanks to you and Davie, I'll can jink him yet. Just let me win upon my horse," he added.
"Catriona must come with us," said I. "She can have no more traffic with that man. She and I are to be married." At which she pressed my hand to her side.
"Are ye there with it?" says Alan, looking back. "The best day's work that ever either of you did yet! And I'm bound to say, my dawtie, ye make a real, bonny couple."
The way that he was following brought us close in by the windmill, where I was aware of a man in seaman's trousers, who seemed to be spying from behind it. Only, of course, we took him in the rear.
"Wheesht!" said, he, "this is my affairs."
The man was, no doubt, a little deafened by the clattering of the mill, and we got up close before he noticed. Then he turned, and we saw he was a big fellow with a mahogany face.
"I think, sir," says Alan, "that you speak the English?"
"Non, Monsieur," says he, with an incredible bad accent.
"Non, Monsieur," cries Alan, mocking him. "Is that how they learn you French on the Seahorse? Ye muckle, gutsey hash, here's a Scots boot to your English hurdies!"
And bounding on him before he could escape, he dealt the man a kick that laid him on his nose. Then he stood, with a savage smile, and watched him scramble to his feet and scamper off into the sand-hills.
"But it's high time I was clear of these empty bents!" said Alan; and continued his way at top speed, and we still following, to the backdoor of Bazin's inn.
It chanced that as we entered by the one door we came face to face with James More entering by the other.
"Here!" said I to Catriona, "quick! upstairs with you and make your packets; this is no fit scene for you."
In the meanwhile James and Alan had met in the midst of the long room. She passed them close by to reach the stairs; and after she was some way up I saw her turn and glance at them again, though without pausing. Indeed, they were worth looking at. Alan wore as they met one of his best appearances of courtesy and friendliness, yet with something eminently warlike, so that James smelled danger off the man, as folk smell fire in a house, and stood prepared for accidents.
Time pressed. Alan's situation in that solitary place, and his enemies about him, might have daunted Caesar. It made no change in him; and it was in his old spirit of mockery and daffing that he began the interview.
"A braw good day to ye again, Mr. Drummond," said he. "What'll yon business of yours be just about?"
"Why, the thing being private, and rather of a long story," says James, "I think it will keep very well till we have eaten."
"I'm none so sure of that," said Alan. "It sticks in my mind it's either now or never; for the fact is me and Mr. Balfour here have gotten a line, and we're thinking of the road."
I saw a little surprise in James's eye; but he held himself stoutly.
"I have but the one word to say to cure you of that," said he, "and that is the name of my business."
"Say it then," says Alan. "Hout! wha minds for Davie?"
"It is a matter that would make us both rich men," said James.
"Do you tell me that?" cries Alan.
"I do, sir," said James. "The plain fact is that it is Cluny's Treasure."
"No!" cried Alan. "Have ye got word of it?"
"I ken the place, Mr. Stewart, and can take you there," said James.
"This crowns all!" says Alan. "Well, and I'm glad I came to Dunkirk. And so this was your business, was it? Halvers, I'm thinking?"
"That is the business, sir," said James.
"Well, well," said Alan; and then in the same tone of childlike interest, "it has naething to do with the Seahorse, then?" he asked,
"With what?" says James.
"Or the lad that I have just kicked the bottom of behind yon windmill?" pursued Alan. "Hut, man! have done with your lees! I have Palliser's letter here in my pouch. You're by with it, James More. You can never show your face again with dacent folk."
James was taken all aback with it. He stood a second, motionless and white, then swelled with the living anger.
"Do you talk to me, you bastard?" he roared out.
"Ye glee'd swine!" cried Alan, and hit him a sounding buffet on the mouth, and the next wink of time their blades clashed together.
At the first sound of the bare steel I instinctively leaped back from the collision. The next I saw, James parried a thrust so nearly that I thought him killed; and it lowed up in my mind that this was the girl's father, and in a manner almost my own, and I drew and ran in to sever them.
"Keep back, Davie! Are ye daft! Damn ye, keep back!" roared Alan. "Your blood be on your ain heid then!"
I beat their blades down twice. I was knocked reeling against the wall; I was back again betwixt them. They took no heed of me, thrusting at each other like two furies. I can never think how I avoided being stabbed myself or stabbing one of these two Rodomonts, and the whole business turned about me like a piece of a dream; in the midst of which I heard a great cry from the stair, and Catriona sprang before her father. In the same moment the point of my sword encountered some thing yielding. It came back to me reddened. I saw the blood flow on the girl's kerchief, and stood sick.
"Will you be killing him before my eyes, and me his daughter after all!" she cried.
"My dear, I have done with him," said Alan, and went, and sat on a table, with his arms crossed and the sword naked in his hand.
Awhile she stood before the man, panting, with big eyes, then swung suddenly about and faced him.
"Begone!" was her word, "take your shame out of my sight; leave me with clean folk. I am a daughter of Alpin! Shame of the sons of Alpin, begone!"
It was said with so much passion as awoke me from the horror of my own bloodied sword. The two stood facing, she with the red stain on her kerchief, he white as a rag. I knew him well enough — I knew it must have pierced him in the quick place of his soul; but he betook himself to a bravado air.
"Why," says he, sheathing his sword, though still with a bright eye on Alan, "if this brawl is over I will but get my portmanteau — "
"There goes no pockmantie out of this place except with me," says Alan.
"Sir!" cries James.
"James More," says Alan, "this lady daughter of yours is to marry my friend Davie, upon the which account I let you pack with a hale carcase. But take you my advice of it and get that carcase out of harm's way or ower late. Little as you suppose it, there are leemits to my temper."
"Be damned, sir, but my money's there!" said James.
"I'm vexed about that, too," says Alan, with his funny face, "but now, ye see, it's mines." And then with more gravity, "Be you advised, James More, you leave this house."
James seemed to cast about for a moment in his mind; but it's to be thought he had enough of Alan's swordsmanship, for he suddenly put off his hat to us and (with a face like one of the damned) bade us farewell in a series. With which he was gone.
" 'KEEP BACK,DAVIE! ARE YE DAFT?' "
At the same time a spell was lifted from me.
"Catriona," I cried, "it was me — it was my sword. O, are you much hurt?"
"I know it, Davie, I am loving you for the pain of it; it was done defending that bad man, my father. See!" she said, and showed me a bleeding scratch, "see, you have made a man of me now. I will carry a wound like an old soldier."
Joy that she should be so little hurt, and the love of her brave nature, supported me. I embraced her, I kissed the wound.
"And am I to be out of the kissing, me that never lost a chance?" says Alan; and putting me aside and taking Catriona by either shoulder, "My dear," he said, "you're a true daughter of Alpin. By all accounts, he was a very fine man, and he may weel be proud of you. If ever I was to get married, it's the marrow of you I would be seeking for a mother to my sons. And I bear's a king's name and speak the truth."
He said it with a serious heat of admiration that was honey to the girl, and through her, to me. It seemed to wipe us clean of all James More's disgraces. And the next moment he was just himself again.
"And now by your leave, my dawties," said he, "this is a' very bonny; but Alan Breck'll be a wee thing nearer to the gallows than he's caring for; and Dod! I think this is a grand place to be leaving."
The word recalled us to some wisdom. Alan ran upstairs and returned with our saddle-bags and James More's portmanteau; I picked up Catriona's bundle where she had dropped it on the stair; and we were setting forth out of that dangerous house, when Bazin stopped the way with cries and gesticulations. He had whipped under a table when the swords were drawn, but now he was as bold as a lion. There was his bill to be settled, there was a chair broken, Alan had sat among his dinner things, James More had fled.
"Here," I cried, "pay yourself," and flung him down some Lewie d'ors; for I thought it was no time to be accounting.
He sprang upon that money, and we passed him by, and ran forth into the open. Upon three sides of the house were seamen hasting and closing in; a little nearer to us James More waved his hat as if to hurry them; and right behind him, like some foolish person holding up his hands, were the sails of the windmill turning.
Alan gave but one glance, and laid himself down to run. He carried a great weight in James More's portmanteau; but I think he would as soon have lost his life as cast away that booty which was his revenge; and he ran so that I was distressed to follow him, and marvelled and exulted to see the girl bounding at my side.
As soon as we appeared, they cast off all disguise upon the other side; and the seamen pursued us with shouts and view-hullohs. We had a start of some two hundred yards, and they were but bandy-legged tarpaulins after all, that could not hope to better us at such an exercise. I suppose they were armed, but did not care to use their pistols on French ground. And as soon as I perceived that we not only held our advantage but drew a little away, I began to feel quite easy of the issue. For all which, it was a hot, brisk bit of work, so long as it lasted; Dunkirk was still far off; and when we popped over a knowe, and found a company of the garrison marching on the other side on some manoeuvre, I could very well understand the word that Alan had.
He stopped running at once; and mopping at his brow, "They're a real bonny folk, the French nation," says he.