IN SEARCH OF SENSATION

WHEN Skirling Wattie had delivered his letter to Flemington on the
foregoing day, he watched the young man out of sight with disgust, and
cursed him for a high-handed jackanapes. He was not used to be treated
in such a fashion. There was that about Archie which took his fancy,
for the suggestion of stir and movement that went everywhere with
Flemington pleased him, and roused his unfailing curiosity. The
beggar’s most pleasant characteristic was his interest in everybody
and everything; his worst, the unseasonable brutality with which he
gratified it.

A livelihood gained by his own powers of cajolery and persistence had
left him without a spark of respect for his kind. He would have been a
man of prowess had his limbs been intact–and destiny, in robbing his
body of activity, had transferred that quality to his brains. His huge
shoulders and broad fists, the arrogant male glare of his roving eye,
might well hint at the wisdom of providence in keeping his sphere of
action to the narrow limits of a go-cart. Those who look for
likenesses between people and animals would be reminded by him of a
wild boar; and it was almost shocking to anyone with a sense of
fitness to hear the mellow and touching voice, rich with the
indescribable quiver of pathos and tragedy, that proceeded from his
bristly jaws when he sang. The world that it conjured up before
imaginative listeners was a world of twilight; of stars that drew a
trail of tear-dimmed lustre about the ancient haunted places of the
country; stars that had shone on battlefields and on the partings of
lovers; that had looked on the raids of the border, and had stood over
the dark border-towers among the peat. It was a strange truth that, in
the voice of this coarse and humble vagabond, lay the whole
distinctive spirit of the national poetry of Scotland.

In the last few months his employment had added new zest to his life,
for it was not only the pay he received for his occasional carrying of
letters that was welcome to him; his bold and guileful soul delighted
in the occupation for its own sake. He was something of a student of
human nature, as all those who live by their wits must be of
necessity; and the small services he was called upon to give brought
him into contact with new varieties of men. Archie was new to him,
and, in the beggar’s opinion, immeasurably more amusing than anyone he
had seen yet. In modern parlance he would be called ‘a sportsman,’
this low-bred old ruffian who had lost his legs, and who was left to
the mercy of his own ingenuity and to the efforts of the five dumb
animals which supplemented his loss. He had–all honour to him–kept
his love of life and its chances through his misfortune; and though he
did not know it himself, it was his recognition of the same spirit in
Flemington that made him appreciate the young man.

His services to the state had not been important up to the present
time. A few letters carried, a little information collected, had been
the extent of his usefulness. But, though he was not in their regular
employ, the authorities were keeping a favourable eye on him, for he
had so far proved himself capable, close-mouthed, and a very miracle
of local knowledge.

He sat in his cart looking resentfully after Flemington between the
stems of the alders and the lattice of their golden-brown leaves, and,
though the one word tossed over the rider’s shoulders did not tell him
much, he determined he would not lose sight of Archie if he could help
it. “Brechin” might mean anything from a night’s lodging to a
lengthened stay, but he would follow him as far as he dared and set
about discovering his movements. Skirling Wattie had friends in
Brechin, as he had in most places round about, and certain bolt-holes
of his own wherein he could always find shelter for himself and his
dogs; but he did not mean to trust himself nearer than these refuges
to Lord Balnillo, at any rate, not for a few days. Chance had relieved
him of the letter for which he was responsible sooner than he
expected, and at present he was a free man. He roused his team, tucked
his pipes into their corner of the cart, and, guiding himself
carefully between the trees, issued from the thicket like some ribald
vision of goblinry escaped from the world of folk-lore.

He turned towards Brechin, and set off for the town at a brisk trot,
the yellow dog straining at his harness, and his comrades taking their
pace from him. Every inch of the road was known to Wattie, every tree
and tuft, every rut and hole; and as there were plenty of these last,
he bumped and swung along in a way that would have dislocated the
bones of a lighter person. The violent roughness of his progress was
what served him for exercise and kept him in health. There were not
many houses near the highway, but the children playing round the doors
of the few he passed hailed him with shouts, and he answered them, as
he answered everyone, with his familiar wag of the head.

When he entered Brechin and rolled past the high, circular shaft of
its round tower, the world made way for him with a grin, and when it
was not agile enough to please him, he heralded himself with a shrill
note from the chanter, which he had unscrewed from his pipes. Business
was business with him. He meant to lie in the town to-night, but he
was anxious to get on to Flemington’s tracks before the scent was
cold.

He drove to the Swan inn and entered the yard, and there he had the
satisfaction of seeing Archie’s horse being rubbed down with a wisp of
straw. Its rider, he made out, had left the inn on foot half an hour
earlier, so, with this meagre clue, he sought the streets and the
company of the idlers haunting their thievish corners, to whom the
passing stranger and what might be made out of him were the best
interests of the day. By the time the light was failing he had traced
Flemington down to the river, where he had been last seen crossing the
bridge. The beggar was a good deal surprised; he could not imagine
what was carrying Archie away from the place.

In the dusk he descended the steep streets running down to the Esk,
and, slackening his pace, took out a short, stout pair of crutches
that he kept beside him, using them as brakes on either side of the
cart. People who saw Wattie for the first time would stand,
spell-bound, to watch the incredible spectacle of his passage through
a town, but, to the inhabitants of Brechin, he was too familiar a
sight for anything but the natural widening of the mouth that his
advent would produce from pure force of habit.

The lights lit here and there were beginning to repeat themselves in
the water, and men were returning to their houses after the day’s work
as he stopped his cart and sent out that surest of all attractions,
the first notes of ‘The Tod,’ into the gathering mists of the
river-side. By ones and twos, the details of a sympathetic audience
drew together round him as his voice rose over the sliding rush of the
Esk. Idlers on the bridge leaned over the grey arches as the sound
came to them above the tongue of the little rapid that babbled as it
lost itself in the shadow of the woods downstream.

Then the pipes took up their tune. Jests and roars of laughter oiled
the springs of generosity, and the good prospects of supper and a bed
began to smile upon the beggar. When darkness set in, he turned his
wheels towards a shed that a publican had put at his disposal for the
night, and he and his dogs laid themselves down to rest in its
comfortable straw. The yellow cur, relieved from his harness, stole
closer and closer to his master and lay with his jowl against the
pipes. Presently Wattie’s dirty hand went out and sought the coarse
head of his servant.

“Doag,” he was muttering, as he went to sleep.

Perhaps in all the grim, grey little Scottish town, no living creature
closed its eyes more contentedly than the poor cur whose head was
pillowed in paradise because of the touch that was on it.

Morning found man and dogs out betimes and migrating to the heart of
the town. Wattie was one who liked to get an early draught from the
fountain-head of news, to be beforehand, so to speak, with his day.
The Swan inn was his goal, and he had not got up the hill towards it
when his practised eye, wise in other men’s movements, saw that the
world was hurrying along, drawn by some magnet stronger than its
legitimate work. The women were running out of their houses too. As he
toiled up the steep incline, a figure burst from the mouth of a wynd
and came flying down the middle of the narrow way.

“Hey! what ails ye, man? What’s ‘ahind ye?” he cried, stopping his
cart and spreading out his arms as though to embrace the approaching
man.

The other paused. He was a pale, foolish-looking youth, whose progress
seemed as little responsible as that of a discharged missile.

“There’s fechtin’!” he yelled, apparently addressing the air in
general.

“Fechtin’?”

“Ay, there’s fechtin’ at Montrose this hour syne! Div ye no hear them,
ye deef muckle swine?” continued the youth, rendered abusive by
excitement.

The two stared in each other’s faces as those do who listen. Dull and
distant, a muffled boom drove in from the coast. A second throb
followed it.

The youth dropped his raised hands and fled on.

Wattie turned his dogs, and set off down the hill without more delay.
Here was the reason that Archie had left the town! It was in
expectation of this present disturbance on the coast that he had
slipped out of Brechin by the less frequented road round the Basin.

He scurried down the hill, scattering the children playing in the
kennel with loud imprecations and threats. He sped over the bridge,
and was soon climbing the rise on the farther side of the Esk. If
there was fighting going on, he would make shift to see it, and
Montrose would be visible from most of his road. Soon he would get a
view of the distant harbour, and would see the smoke of the guns whose
throats continued to trouble the air. Also, he would get forward
unmolested, for there would be the width of the Basin between himself
and Lord Balnillo.

He breathed his team when he reached the top of the hill; for he was a
scientific driver, and he had some way to go. He cast a glance down at
the place he had left, rejoicing that no one had followed him out of
it. When he was on his own errands he did not like company,
preferring, like most independent characters, to develop his
intentions in the perfect freedom of silence.

When he drew near enough to distinguish the _Venture_, a dark spot
under the lee of Ferryden, he saw the white puffs of smoke bursting
from her, and the answering clouds rising from the island. There had
been no time to hear the rumours of the morning before he met the pale
young man, or he would have learned that a body of Prince Charles’s
men under Ferrier had left Brechin last night whilst he lay sound
asleep in the straw among his dogs. He could not imagine where the
assailants had come from who were pounding at the ship from
Inchbrayock.

The fields sloped away from him to the water, leaving an uninterrupted
view. He pressed on to the cross-roads at which he must turn along the
Basin’s shore. From there on, the conformation of the land, and the
frequent clumps of trees, would shut out both town and harbour from
his sight until he came parallel with the island.

He halted at the turning for a last look at the town. The firing had
ceased, which reconciled him a little to the eclipse of the distant
spectacle; then he drove on again, unconscious of the sight he was to
miss. For, unsuspected by him, as by the crowd thronging the quays of
Montrose, the French frigate was creeping up the coast, and she made
her appearance in the river-mouth just as Wattie began the tamer stage
of his journey.

The yellow cur and his companions toiled along at their steady trot,
their red tongues hanging. The broadside from the French ship rang
inland, and the beggar groaned, urging them with curses and chosen
abuse. His intimate knowledge of the neighbourhood led him to steer
for the identical spot on which Flemington, crouched in his whin-bush,
had looked down on the affray, and he hoped devoutly that he might
reach that point of vantage while there was still something to be seen
from it. Silence had settled on the strait once more.

Not far in front a man was coming into sight, the first creature
Wattie had seen since leaving Brechin, whose face was turned from the
coast. He seemed a person of irresolute mind, as well as of
vacillating feet, for every few yards he would stop, hesitating,
before resuming his way. The beggar cursed him heartily for a
drunkard, for, though he had a lively sympathy with backsliders of
that kind, he knew that accurate information was the last thing to be
expected from them. Before the wayfarers had halved the distance
between them the man stopped, and sitting down by the tumbledown stone
dyke at the roadside, dropped his head in his hands. As the cart
passed him a few minutes later, he raised a ghastly face, and Skirling
Wattie pulled up astounded, with a loud and profane exclamation, as he
recognized Flemington.

Though Archie had been glad to escape from the beggar yesterday, he
was now thankful to see anyone who might pass for a friend. He tried
to smile, but his eyes closed again, and he put out his hand towards
the dyke.

“I’m so devilish giddy,” he said.

Wattie looked at the cut on his head and the stains of blood on his
coat.

“Ye’ve gotten a rare dunt,” he observed.

Archie, who seemed to himself to be slipping off the rounded edge of
the world, made no reply.

The other sat eyeing him with perplexity and some impatience. He did
not know what he wanted most–to get to Montrose, or to get news out
of Flemington. The dogs lay down in the mud. Flemington kept his hand
to his eyes for a minute, and then lifted his head again.

“The ship has surrendered,” he said, speaking with difficulty; “I have
been on the high ground watching. She struck her flag. A French
frigate—-”

He stopped again. The road on which he sat was whirling down into
illimitable space.

The other took in his plight. His coat, torn in his struggle with
Logie, was full of whin-prickles, and the wet mud was caked on his
legs. His soft, silky hair was flattened on his forehead.

“Ye’ve been fechtin’ yersel’, ma lad,” said Wattie. “Whaur hae ye
been?”

“There’s a rebel force on Inchbrayock,” said Archie, with another
effort; “I have been on the island. Yes, I’ve been fighting. A man
recognized me–a man I saw at–on the road by Balnillo. They will be
hunting me soon, and I have papers on me they must not find, and
money–all the money I have. God knows how I am to get away! I must
get to Aberbrothock.”

“What was ye sayin’ aboot the French?”

In broken sentences, and between his fits of giddiness, Archie
explained the situation in the harbour, and the beggar listened, his
bristly brows knit, his bonnet thrust back on his bald head; and his
own best course of action grew clear to him. Montrose would soon be
full of rebel soldiers, and though these might be generous audiences
when merry with wine and loose upon the streets, their presence would
make him no safer from Lord Balnillo. Wattie knew that the judge’s
loyalty was beginning to be suspected, and that he might well have
friends among the Prince’s officers, whose arrival might attract him
to the town. And to serve Archie would be a good recommendation for
himself with his employers, to say nothing of any private gratitude
that the young man might feel.

“Bide you whaur ye are!” he exclaimed, rousing his dogs. “Lad, a’ll
hae to ca’ ye oot o’ this, an’ dod! we’ll need a’ our time!”

Not far from them a spring was trickling from the fields, dropping in
a spurt through the damp mosses between the unpointed stones of the
dyke. The obedient dogs drew their master close to it, and he filled a
battered pannikin that he took from among his small collection of
necessities in the bottom of the cart. He returned with the water, and
when Archie had bathed his head in its icy coldness, he drew a
whisky-bottle from its snug lair under the bagpipes, and forced him to
drink. It was half full, for the friendly publican had replenished his
store before they parted on the foregoing night. As the liquid warmed
his stomach, Archie raised his head slowly.

“I believe I can walk now,” he said at last.

“Ye’ll need to try,” observed Wattie dryly. “Ye’ll no can ride wi’ me.
Come awa’, Maister Flemington. Will a gi’ ye a skelloch o’ the pipes
to help ye alang?”

“In God’s name, no!” cried Archie, whose head was splitting.

He struggled on to his feet. The whisky was beginning to overcome the
giddiness, and he knew that every minute spent on the highroad was a
risk.

The beggar was determined to go to Aberbrothock with Archie; he did
not consider him in a fit state to be left alone, and he counselled
him to leave the road at once, and to cut diagonally across the high
ground, whilst he himself, debarred by his wheels from going across
country, drove back to the cross roads, and took the one to the coast.
By doing this the pair would meet, Flemington having taken one side of
the triangle, while Wattie had traversed the other two. They were to
await each other at a spot indicated by the latter, where a bit of
moor encroached on the way.

As Wattie turned again to retrace his road, he watched his friend
toiling painfully up the slanting ground among the uneven tussocks of
grass with some anxiety. Archie laboured along, pausing now and again
to rest, but he managed to gain the summit of the ridge. Wattie saw
his figure shorten from the feet up as he crossed the sky-line, till
his head and shoulders dropped out of sight like the topsails of a
ship over a clear horizon; he was disappointed at having missed the
sight of so much good fighting. Archie’s account had been rather
incoherent, but he gathered that the rebels were in possession of the
harbour, and that a French ship had come in in the middle of the
affray full of rebel troops. He shouted the information to the few
people he met.

He turned southward at the cross roads. Behind him lay the panorama of
the Basin and the spread of the rolling country; Brechin, the Esk, the
woods of Monrummon Moor, stretching out to Forfar, and, northward, the
Grampians, lying with their long shoulders in the autumn light. His
beat for begging was down there across the water and round about the
country between town and town; but though his activities were in that
direction, he knew Aberbrothock and the coast well, for he had been
born in a fishing-village in one of its creeks, and had spent his
early years at sea. He would be able to put Archie in the way of a
passage to Leith without much trouble and without unnecessary
explanations; Archie had money on him, and could be trusted to pay his
way.

He was the first to reach the trysting-place, and he drew up, glad to
give his team a rest; at last he saw Archie coming along with the
slow, careful gait of a man who is obliged to consider each step of
his way separately in order to get on at all.

“Sit ye doon,” he exclaimed, as they met.

“If once I sit down I am lost,” said Archie. “Come on.”

He started along the road with the same dogged step, the beggar
keeping alongside. They had gone about half a mile when Flemington
clutched at a wayside bush and then slid to the ground in a heap.

Wattie pulled up, dismayed, and scanned their surroundings. To let him
lie there by the road was out of the question. He could not tell how
much his head had been injured, but he knew enough to be sure that
exposure and cold might bring a serious illness on a man in his state;
he did not understand that the whisky he had given Archie was the
worst possible thing for him. To the beggar, it was the sovereign
remedy for all trouble of mind or body.

He cursed his own circumscribed energies; there was no one in sight.
The nearest habitation was a little farmhouse on the skirts of the
moor with one tiny window in its gable-end making a dark spot, high
under the roof.

Wattie turned his wheels reluctantly towards it. Unwilling though he
was to draw attention to his companion, there was no choice.