THE VANISHING BIRD

THE houses of Brechin climb from the river up the slope, and a little
camp was spread upon the crest of ground above them, looking down over
the uneven pattern of walls, the rising smoke, and the woods that
cradled the Esk. Such of Cumberland’s soldiery as had collected in
Angus was drawn together here, and as the country was settling down,
the camp was increased by detachments of horse and foot that arrived
daily from various directions. The Muir of Pert was bare, left to the
company of the roe-deer and the birds, for James had been traced to
the coast, and the hungry North Sea had swallowed his tracks.

The spot occupied by the tents of Callandar’s troop was in the highest
corner of the camp, the one farthest from the town, and the long
northern light that lingered over the hill enveloped the camp sounds
and sights in a still, greenish clearness. There would be a bare few
hours of darkness.

Callandar was now in command of a small force consisting of a troop of
his own regiment which had lately marched in, and two of his men stood
sentry outside the tent in which Archie Flemington was sitting at an
improvised table writing a letter.

He had been a close prisoner since his arrest on the Muir of Pert, and
during the week that had elapsed, whilst correspondence about him and
orders concerning him had gone to and fro between Brechin and
Edinburgh, he had been exclusively under Callandar’s charge. That
arrangement was the one concession made on his behalf among the many
that had been asked for by his friends. At his own request he was to
remain Callandar’s prisoner till the end, and it was to be Callandar’s
voice that would give the order for his release at sunrise to-morrow,
and Callandar’s troopers whose hands would set him free.

The two men had spent much time together. Though the officer’s
responsibility did not include the necessity of seeing much of his
prisoner, he had chosen to spend nearly all his leisure in Archie’s
tent. They had drawn very near together, this incongruous pair, though
the chasm that lay between their respective temperaments had not been
bridged by words. They had sat together on many evenings, almost in
silence, playing cards until one of them grew drowsy, or some
officious cock crowed on the outskirts of the town. Of the incident
which had brought them into their present relationship, they spoke not
at all; but sometimes Archie had broken out into snatches of talk, and
Callandar had listened, with his grim smile playing about his mouth,
to his descriptions of the men and things amongst which his short life
had thrown him. As he looked across at his companion, who sat, his
eyes sparkling in the light of the lantern, his expression changing
with the shades of humour that ran over his words, like shadows over
growing corn, he would be brought up short against the thought of the
terrible incongruity to come–death. He could not think of Archie and
death. At times he would have given a great deal to pass on his
responsibility to some other man, and to turn his back on the place
that was to witness such a tragedy. In furthering Archie’s wishes by
his own application for custody of him he had given him a great proof
of friendship–how great he was only to learn as the days went by.
Would to God it were over–so he would say to himself each night as he
left the tent. He had thought Archie soft when they parted at the
cross-roads, and he had been sorry. There was no need for sorrow on
that score; never had been. The sorrow to him now was that so gallant,
so brilliant a creature was to be cut off from the life of the world,
to go down into the darkness, leaving so many of its inhabitants
half-hearted, half-spirited, half alive, to crawl on in an existence
which only interested them inasmuch as it supplied their common needs.

His hostility against Logie ran above the level of the just antagonism
that a man feels for his country’s enemy, and he questioned whether
his life were worth the price that Flemington was paying for it. The
hurried words that Archie had spoken about Logie as they left the
hovel together had told him little, and that little seemed to him
inadequate to explain the tremendous consequences that had followed.
What had Logie said or done that had power to turn him out of his way?
A man may meet many admirable characters among his enemies without
having his efforts paralyzed by the encounter. Flemington was not new
to his trade, and had been long enough in the secret service to know
its requirements. A certain unscrupulousness was necessarily among
them, yet why had his gorge only risen against it now? Callandar could
find no signs in him of the overwrought sensibility that seemed to
have prompted his revolt against his task. Logie had placed his safety
in Archie’s hands, and it was in order to end that safety that the
young man had gone out; he had laid the trap and the quarry had fallen
into it. What else had he expected? It was not that Callandar could
not understand the scruple; what he could not understand was why a man
of Archie’s occupation should suddenly be undone by it. Having
accepted his task, his duty had been plain. In theory, a rebel, to
Callandar was a rebel, no more, and Archie, by his deed, had played a
rebel’s part; yet, in spite of that, the duty he must carry out on the
morrow was making his heart sink within him. One thing about Archie
stood out plain–he was not going to shirk his duty to his king and
yet take Government money. Whatsoever his doings, the prisoner who sat
in the tent over yonder would be lying under the earth to-morrow
because he was prepared to pay the last price for his scruple. No, he
was not soft.

Callandar would have died sooner than let him escape, yet his escape
would have made him glad.

Callandar came across the camp and passed between the two sentries
into Flemington’s tent. The young man looked up from his writing.

“You are busy,” said the officer.

“I have nearly done. There seems so much to do at the last,” he added.

The other sat down on the bed and looked at him, filled with grief.
The lantern stood by Archie’s hand. His head was bent into the circle
of light, and the yellow shine that fell upon it warmed his olive skin
and brought out the brown shades in his brows and hair. The changing
curves of his mouth were firm in the intensity of his occupation. He
had so much expression as a rule that people seldom thought about his
features but Callandar now noticed his long chin and the fine lines of
his nostril.

His pen scratched on for a few minutes; then he laid it down and
turned round.

“You have done me many kindnesses, Callandar,” said he, “and now I am
going to ask you for another–the greatest of all. It is everything to
me that Captain Logie should get this letter. He is safe, I hope, over
the water, but I do not know where. Will you take charge of it?”

“I will,” said the other–“yes.”

The very name of Logie went against him.

“You will have to keep it some little time, I fear,” continued Archie,
“but when the country has settled down you will be able to reach him
through Lord Balnillo. Promise me that, if you can compass it, he
shall get this.”

“If it is to be done, I will do it.”

“From you, that is enough,” said Flemington, “I shall rest quietly.”

He turned to his writing again.

Callandar sat still, looking round the tent vaguely for something to
distract his heavy thoughts. A card lay on the ground and he picked it
up. It was an ace, and the blank space of white round it was covered
with drawing. His own consideration had procured pens and books–all
that he could find to brighten the passing days for his prisoner. This
was the result of some impulse that had taken Flemington’s artistic
fingers.

It was a sketch of one of the sentries outside the tent door. The
figure was given in a few lines, dark against the light, and the
outline of the man’s homely features had gained some quality of
suggestiveness and distinction by its passage through Archie’s mind,
and by the way he had placed the head against the clouded atmosphere
made by the smoke rising from the camp. Through it, came a touched-in
vision of the horizon beyond the tents. He looked at it, seeing
something of its cleverness, and tossed it aside.

When Archie had ended his letter, he read it through:

“When this comes to your hands perhaps you will know what has become
of me,” he had written, “and you will understand the truth. I ask you
to believe me, if only because these are the last words I shall ever
write. A man speaks the truth when it is a matter of hours with him.

“You know what brought me to Balnillo, but you do not know what sent
me from it. I went because I had no courage to stay. I was sent to
find out how deep you were concerned in the Stuart cause and to watch
your doings. I followed you that night in the town, and my wrist bears
the mark you set on it still. That morning I despatched my
confirmation of the Government’s suspicions about you. Then I met you
and we sat by the Basin of Montrose. God knows I have never forgotten
the story you told me.

“Logie, I went because I could not strike you again. You had been
struck too hard in the past, and I could not do it. What I told you
about myself was untrue, but you believed it, and would have helped
me. How could I go on?

“Then, as I stood between the devil and the deep sea, my orders took
me to the _Venture_, and we met again on Inchbrayock. I had made sure
you would be on the hill. When I would have escaped from you, you held
me back, and as we struggled you knew me for what I was.

“You know the rest as well as I do, and you know where I was in the
campaign that followed. Last of all I was sent out with those who were
to take you on the Muir of Pert. I had no choice but to go–the choice
came at the cross-roads below Huntly Hill. It was I who sent the
warning to you from the little house on the Muir. You had directed me
there for a different purpose. I sent no name with my message, knowing
that if I did you might suspect me of a trick to entrap you again.
That is all. There remained only the consequences, and I shall be face
to face with them to-morrow.

“There is one thing more to say. Do not let yourself suppose that I am
paying for your life with mine. I might have escaped had I tried to do
so–it was my fault that I did not try. I had had enough of untruth,
and I could no longer take the king’s money; I had served his cause
ill, and I could only pay for it. I have known two true men in my
life–you and the man who has promised that you shall receive this
letter. If you will think of me without bitterness, remember that I
should have been glad.

“ARCHIBALD FLEMINGTON.”

He folded the paper and rose, holding it out to Callandar.

“I am contented,” said he; “go now, Callandar. You look worn out. I
believe this last night is trying you more than it tries me.”

* * * * *

It was some little time after daybreak that Callandar stood again at
the door of the tent under the kindling skies. Archie was waiting for
him and he came out. The eyes of the sentries never left them as they
went away together, followed by the small armed guard that was at
Callandar’s heels.

The two walked a little apart, and when they reached the outskirts of
the camp they came to a field, an insignificant rough enclosure, in
which half a dozen soldiers were gathered, waiting. At the sight of
Callandar the sergeant who was in charge of them began to form them in
a line some paces from the wall.

Callandar and Flemington stopped. The light had grown clear, and the
smoke that was beginning to rise from the town thickened the air over
the roofs that could be seen from where they stood. The daily needs
and the daily avocations were beginning again for those below the
hill, while they were ceasing for ever for him who stood above in the
cool morning. In a few minutes the sun would get up; already there was
a sign of his coming in the eastward sky.

The two men turned to each other; they had nothing more to say. They
had settled every detail of this last act of their short
companionship, so that there should be no hesitation, no mistake,
nothing to be a lengthening of agony for one, nor an evil memory for
the other.

Archie held out his hand.

“When I look at you,” he said.

“Yes,” said Callandar.

“There are no words, Callandar. Words are nothing–but the last bit of
my life has been the better for you.”

For once speech came quickly to the soldier.

“The rest of mine will be the better for you,” he answered. “You said
once that you were not a true man. You lied.”

Flemington was giving all to disprove the accusation of untruth, and
it was one of the last things he was to hear.

So, with these rough words–more precious to him than any that could
have been spoken–sounding in his ears, he walked away and stood
before the wall. The men were lined in front of him.

His eyes roved for a moment over the slope of the country, the town
roofs, the camp, then went to the distance. A solitary bird was
crossing the sky, and his look followed it as it had followed the one
he had seen when he made his choice at the foot of Huntly Hill. The
first had flown away, a vanishing speck, towards the shadows gathering
about the hills. This one was going into the sunrise. It was lost in
the light. . . .

“Fire!” said Callandar.

For Archie was looking at him with a smile.