ADRIFT

ARCHIE rode along in a dream. He had gone straight out of the garden,
taken his horse from the stable, and ridden back to Forfar, following
the blind resolution to escape from Ardguys before he should have time
to realize what it was costing him. He had changed horses at the
posting-house, and turned his face along the way he had come. Through
his pain and perplexity the only thing that stood fast was his
determination not to return to Balnillo. “I will go now,” he had said
to Madam Flemington, and he had gone without another word, keeping his
very thoughts within the walled circle of his resolution, lest they
should turn to look at familiar things that might thrust out hands
full of old memories to hold him back.

In the middle of his careless life he found himself cut adrift without
warning from those associations that he now began to feel he had
valued too little, taken for granted too much.

Balnillo was impossible for him, and in consequence he was to be a
stranger in his own home. Madam Flemington had made no concession and
had put no term to his banishment, and though he could not believe
that such a state of things could last, and that one sudden impulse of
hers could hurl him out of her life for ever, she, who had lived for
him, had told him that she would “do without him.” Then, as he assured
himself of this, from that dim recess wherein a latent truth hides
until some outside light flashes upon its lair, came the realization
that she had not lived for him alone. She had lived for him that she
might make him into the instrument she desired, a weapon fashioned to
her hand, wherewith she might return blow for blow.

All at once the thought made him spiritually sick, and the glory and
desirableness of life seemed to fade. He could not see through its
dark places, dark where all had been sunshine. He had been a boy
yesterday, a man only by virtue of his astounding courage and
resource, but he was awakening from boyhood, and manhood was hard. His
education had begun, and he could not value the education of pain–the
soundest, the most costly one there is–any more than any of us do
whilst it lasts. He did not think, any more than any of us think, that
perhaps when we come to lie on our death-beds we shall know that, of
all the privileges of the life behind us, the greatest has been the
privilege of having suffered and fought.

All he knew was that his heart ached, that he had disappointed and
estranged the person he loved best, and had lost, at any rate
temporarily, the home that had been so dear. But hope would not desert
him, in spite of everything. Madam Flemington had gone very wide of
the mark in suspecting him of any leaning towards the Stuarts, and she
would soon understand how little intention he had of turning rebel.
There was still work for him to do. He had been given a free hand in
details, and he would go to Brechin for the night; to-morrow he must
decide what to do. Possibly he would ask to be transferred to some
other place. But nothing that heaven or earth could offer him should
make him betray Logie.

Madam Flemington had seen him go, in ignorance of whether he had gone
in obedience or in revolt. Perhaps she imagined that her arguments and
the hateful story she had laid bare to him had prevailed, and that he
was returning to his unfinished portrait. In the excitement of his
interview with her, he had not told her anything but that he refused
definitely to spy upon James any more.

He had started for Ardguys so early, and had been there such a short
time, that he was back in Forfar by noon. There he left his horse,
and, mounting another, set off for Brechin. He was within sight of its
ancient round tower, grey among the yellowing trees above the South
Esk, when close to his left hand there rose the shrill screech of a
pipe, cutting into his abstraction of mind like a sharp stab of pain.
It was so loud and sudden that the horse leaped to the farther side of
the road, snorting, and Flemington, sitting loosely, nearly lost his
seat. He pulled up the astonished animal, and peered into a thicket of
alder growing by the wayside. The ground was marshy, and the stunted
trees were set close, but, dividing their branches, he saw behind
their screen an open patch in the midst of which was Skirling Wattie’s
cart. His jovial face seemed to illuminate the spot.

“Dod!” exclaimed the piper, “ye was near doon! A’d no seek to change
wi’ you. A’m safer wi’ ma’ doags than you wi’ yon horse. What ailed ye
that ye gae’d awa’ frae Balnillo?”

“Private matters,” said Archie shortly.

“Aweel, they private matters was no far frae putting me i’ the
tolbooth. What gar’d ye no tell me ye was gaein’?”

“Have you got a letter for me?” said Flemington, as Wattie began to
draw up his sliding-board.

“Ay, there’s ane. But just wait you, ma lad, till a tell ye what a was
sayin’ to auld Davie—-”

“Never mind what you said to Lord Balnillo,” broke in Flemington; “I
want my letter.”

He slipped from the saddle and looped the rein over his arm.

“Dinna bring yon brute near me!” cried Wattie, as horse and man began
to crush through the alders. “A’m fell feared o’ they unchancy
cattle.”

Archie made an impatient sound and threw the rein over a stump. He
approached the cart, and the yellow dog, who was for once lying down,
opened his wary golden eyes, watching each movement that brought the
intruder nearer to his master without raising his head.

“You are not often on this side of Brechin,” said Archie, as the
beggar handed him the packet.

“Fegs, na!” returned Wattie, “but auld Davie an’ his tolbooth’s on the
ither side o’t an’ it’s no safe yonder. It’s yersel’ I hae to thank
for that, Mr. Flemington. A didna ken whaur ye was, sae a gae’d up to
the muckle hoose to speer for ye. The auld stock came doon himsel’.
Dod! the doag gar’d him loup an’ the pipes gar’d him skelloch. But he
tell’t me whaur ye was.”

“Plague take you! did you go there asking for me?” cried Archie.

“What was a to dae? A tell’t Davie ye was needin’ me to lairn ye a
sang! ‘The painter-lad was seekin’ me,’ says I, ‘an’ he tell’t me to
come in-by.'”

Flemington’s annoyance deepened. He did not know what the zeal of this
insufferable rascal had led him to say or do in his name, and he had
the rueful sense that the tangle he had paid such a heavy price to
escape from was complicating round him. The officious familiarity of
the piper exasperated him, and he resented Government’s choice of such
a tool. He put the letter in his pocket, and began to back out of the
thicket. He would read his instructions by himself.

“Hey! ye’re no awa’, man?” cried Wattie.

“I have no time to waste,” said Flemington, his foot in the stirrup.

“But ye’ve no tell’t me whaur ye’re gaein’!”

“Brechin!”

Archie called the word over his shoulder, and started off at a trot,
which he kept up until he had left the alder-bushes some way behind
him.

Then he broke the seal of his letter, and found that he was to convey
the substance of each report that he sent in, not only to His
Majesty’s intelligence officer at Perth, but to Captain Hall, of the
English ship _Venture_, that was lying under Ferryden. He was to
proceed at once to the vessel, to which further instructions for him
would be sent in a couple of days’ time.

He pocketed the letter and drew a breath of relief, blessing the
encounter that he had just cursed, for a road of escape from his
present difficulty began to open before him. He must take to his own
feet on the other side of Brechin, and go straight to the _Venture_.
He would be close to Montrose, in communication with it, though not
within the precincts of the town, and safe from the chance of running
against Logie. Balnillo and his brother would not know what had become
of him, and Christian Flemington would be cured of her suspicions by
the simple testimony of his whereabouts.

He would treat the two days that he had spent at the judge’s house as
if they had dropped out of his life, and merely report his late
presence in Montrose to the captain of the sloop. He would describe
his watching of the two men who came out of ‘The Happy Land,’ and how
he had followed them to the harbour through the darkness; how he had
seen them stop opposite the ship’s light as they discussed their
plans; how he had tried to secure the paper they held. He would tell
the captain that he believed some design against the ship to be on
foot, but he would not let Logie’s name pass his lips; and he would
deny any knowledge of the identity of either man, lest the mention of
Ferrier should confirm the suspicions of those who guessed he was
working with James. When he had reported himself to Perth from the
ship, he would no longer be brought into contact with Skirling Wattie,
which at that moment struck him as an advantage.

The evenings had begun to close in early. As he crossed the Esk bridge
and walked out of Brechin, the dusk was enwrapping its parapet like a
veil. He hurried on, and struck out along the road that would lead him
to Ferryden by the southern shore of the Basin. His way ran up a long
ascent, and when he stood at the top of the hill the outline of the
moon’s disc was rising, faint behind the thin cloudy bank that rested
on the sea beyond Montrose. There was just enough daylight left to
show him the Basin lying between him and the broken line of the town’s
twinkling lights under the muffled moon.

It was quite dark when he stood at last within hail of the _Venture_.
As he went along the bank at the Esk’s mouth, he could see before him
the cluster of houses that formed Ferryden village, and the North Sea
beyond it, a formless void in the night, with the tide far out. Though
the moon was well up, the cloud-bank had risen with her, and taken all
sharpness out of the atmosphere.

At his left hand the water crawled slithering at the foot of the
sloping bank, like a dark, full-fed snake, and not thirty yards out,
just where it broadened, stretching to the quays of Montrose, the
vessel lay at anchor, a stationary blot on the slow movement.
Upstream, between her and the Basin, the wedge-shaped island of
Inchbrayock split the mass of water into two portions.

Flemington halted, taking in the dark scene, which he had contemplated
from its reverse side only a few nights ago. Then he went down to the
water and put his hands round his mouth.

“_Venture_ ahoy!” he shouted.

There was no movement on the ship. He waited, and then called again,
with the same result. Through an open porthole came a man’s laugh,
sudden, as though provoked by some unexpected jest. The water was deep
here, and the ship lay so near that every word was carried across it
to the shore.

The laugh exasperated him. He threw all the power of his lungs into
another shout.

“Who goes there?” said a voice.

“Friend,” replied Archie; and, fearing to be asked for a countersign,
he called quickly, “Despatches for Captain Hall.”

“Captain Hall is ashore,” announced a second voice, “and no one boards
us till he returns.”

The _Venture_ was near enough to the bank for Archie to hear some
derisive comment, the words of which he could not completely
distinguish. A suppressed laugh followed.

“Damn it!” he cried, “am I to be kept here all night?”

“Like enough, if you mean to wait for the captain.”

This reply came from the open porthole, in which the light was
obliterated by the head of the man who spoke.

There was a sound as of someone pulling him back by the heels, and the
port was an eye of light again.

Flemington turned and went up the bank, and as he reached the top and
sprang on to the path he ran into a short, stoutish figure which was
beginning to descend. An impatient expletive burst from it.

“You needn’t hurry, sir,” said Archie, as the other hailed the vessel
querulously; “you are not likely to get on board?”

“What? what? Not board my own ship?”

Flemington was a good deal taken aback. He could not see much in the
clouded night, but no impression of authority seemed to emanate from
the indistinguishable person beside him.

“Ten thousand pardons, sir!” exclaimed the young man. “You are Captain
Hall? I have information for you, and am sent by His Majesty’s
intelligence officer in Perth to report myself to you. Flemington is
my name.”

For a minute the little man said nothing, and Archie felt rather than
saw his fidgety movements. He seemed to be hesitating.

A boat was being put off from the ship. She lay so near to them that a
mere push from her side brought the craft almost into the bank.

“It is so dark that I must show you my credentials on board,” said
Archie, taking Captain Hall’s acquiescence for granted.

He heard his companion drawing in his breath nervously through his
teeth. No opposition was made as he stepped into the boat.

When he stood on deck beside Hall the ship was quiet and the sounds of
laughter were silent. He had the feeling that everyone on board had
got out of the way on purpose as he followed the captain down the
companion to his cabin. As the latter opened the door the light within
revealed him plainly for the first time.

He was a small ginger-haired man, whose furtive eyes were set very
close to a thin-bridged, aquiline nose; his gait was remarkable
because he trotted rather than walked; his restless fingers rubbed one
another as he spoke. He looked peevish and a little dissipated, and
his manner conveyed the idea that he felt himself to have no business
where he was. As Archie remarked that, he told himself that it was a
characteristic he had never yet seen in a seaman. His dress was
careless, and a wine-stain on his cravat caught his companion’s eye.
He had the personality of a rabbit.

Hall did not sit down, but stood at the farther side of the table
looking with a kind of grudging intentness at his guest, and
Flemington was inclined to laugh, in spite of the heavy heart he had
carried all day. The other moved about with undecided steps. When at
last he sat down, just under the swinging lamp, Archie was certain
that, though he could be called sober, he had been drinking.

“Your business, sir,” he began, in a husky voice. “I must tell you
that I am fatigued. I had hoped to go to bed in peace.”

He paused, leaning back, and surveyed Flemington with injured
distaste.

“There is no reason that you should not,” replied Archie boldly. “I
have had a devilish hard day myself. Give me a corner to lie in
to-night, and I will give you the details of my report quickly.”

He saw that he would meet with no opposition from Hall, whose one idea
was to spare himself effort, and that his own quarters on board the
_Venture_ were sure. No doubt long practice had enabled the man to
look less muddled than he felt. He sat down opposite to him.

The other put out his hand, as though to ward him off.

“I have no leisure for business to-night,” he said. “This is not the
time for it.”

“All the same, I have orders from Perth to report myself to you, as I
have told you already,” said Archie. “If you will listen, I will try
to make myself clear without troubling you to read anything. I have
information to give which you should hear at once.”

“I tell you that I cannot attend to you,” said Hall.

“I shall not keep you long. You do not realize that it is important,
sir.”

“Am I to be dictated to?” exclaimed the other, raising his voice.
“This is my own ship, Mr. Flem–Fling–Fl—-”

The name presented so much difficulty to Hall that it died away in a
tangled murmur, and Archie saw that to try to make him understand
anything important in his present state would be labour lost.

“Well, sir,” said he, “I will tell you at once that I suspect an
attack on you is brewing in Montrose. I believe that it may happen at
any moment. Having delivered myself of that, I had best leave you.”

The word “attack” found its way to the captain’s brain.

“It’s impossible!” he exclaimed crossly. “Why, plague on’t, I’ve got
all the town guns! Nonsense, sir–no’sense! Come, I will call for a
bottle of wine, ‘n you can go. There’s an empty bunk, I s’pose.”

The order was given and the wine was brought. Archie noticed that the
man who set the bottle and the two glasses on the table threw a casual
look at Hall’s hand, which shook as he helped his guest. He had eaten
little since morning, and drunk less. Now that he had attained his
object, and found himself in temporary shelter and temporary peace, be
realized how glad he was of the wine. When, after a single glassful,
he rose to follow the sailor who came to show him his bunk, he turned
to bid good-night to Hall. The light hanging above the captain’s head
revealed every line, every contour of his face with merciless candour;
and Flemington could see that no lover, counting the minutes till he
should be left with his mistress, had ever longed more eagerly to be
alone with her than this man longed to be alone with the bottle before
him.

Archie threw himself thankfully into his bunk. There was evidently
room for him on the ship, for there was no trace of another occupant
in the little cabin; nevertheless, it looked untidy and unswept. The
port close to which he lay was on the starboard side of the vessel,
and looked across the strait towards the town. The lamps were nearly
all extinguished on the quays, and only here and there a yellow spot
of light made a faint ladder in the water. The pleasant trickling
sound outside was soothing, with its impersonal, monotonous whisper.
He wondered how long Hall would sit bemusing himself at the table, and
what the discipline of a ship commanded by this curiously ineffective
personality could be. To-morrow he must make out his story to the
little man. He could not reproach himself with having postponed his
report, for he knew that Hall’s brain, which might possibly be clearer
in the morning, was incapable of taking in any but the simplest
impressions to-night.

Tired as he was, he did not sleep for a long time. The scenes of the
past few days ran through his head one after another–now they
appeared unreal, now almost visible to his eyes. Sometimes the space
of time they covered seemed age-long, sometimes a passing flash. This
was Saturday night, and all the events that had culminated in the
disjointing of his life had been crowded into it since Monday. On
Monday he had not suspected what lay in himself. He would have gibed
had he been told that another man’s personality, a page out of another
man’s history, could play such havoc with his own interests.

He wondered what James was doing. Was he–now–over there in the
darkness, looking across the rolling, sea-bound water straight to the
spot on which he lay? Would he–could space be obliterated and night
illumined–look up to find his steady eyes upon him? He lay quiet,
marvelling, speculating. Then Logie, the shadowy town, the burning
autumn-trees of Balnillo, the tulips round the house in far-away
Holland, fell away from his mind, and in their place was the familiar
background of Ardguys, the Ardguys of his childhood, with the
silver-haired figure of Madam Flemington confronting him; that
terrible, unsparing presence wrapped about with something greater and
more arresting than mere beauty; the quality that had wrought on him
since he was a little lad. He turned about with a convulsive breath
that was almost a sob.

Then, at last, he slept soundly, to be awakened just at dawn by the
roar of a gun, followed by a rattle of small shot, and the frantic
hurrying of feet overhead.