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Midwinter by John Buchan



subjects: Historical Fiction

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In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebel army is marching south into England. Alastair Maclean, one of the Prince’s most loyal supporters, is sent ahead to carry out a secret mission. He is befriended by two extraordinary men-Dr. Samuel Johnson, an aspiring man of letters, and the shadowy figure known only as “Midwinter.”

351 pages with a reading time of ~5.50 hours (87941 words), and first published in 1923. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, .

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In which a Highland Gentleman Misses his Way

The road which had begun as a rutted cart-track sank presently to a grassy footpath among scrub oaks, and as the boughs whipped his face the young man cried out impatiently and pulled up his horse to consider. He was on a journey where secrecy was not less vital than speed, and he was finding the two incompatible. That morning he had avoided Banbury and the high road which followed the crown of Cotswold to the young streams of Thames, for that way lay Beaufort’s country, and at such a time there would be jealous tongues to question passengers. For the same reason he had left the main Oxford road on his right, since the channel between Oxford and the North might well be troublesome, even for a respectable traveller who called himself Mr Andrew Watson, and was ready with a legend of a sea-coal business in Newcastle. But his circumspection seemed to have taken him too far on an easterly course into a land of tangled forests. He pulled out his chart of the journey and studied it with puzzled eyes. My Lord Cornbury’s house could not be twenty miles distant, but what if the twenty miles were pathless? An October gale was tossing the boughs and whirling the dead bracken, and a cold rain was beginning. Ill weather was nothing to one nourished among Hebridean north-westers, but he cursed a land in which there were no landmarks. A hill-top, a glimpse of sea or loch, even a stone on a ridge, were things a man could steer by, but what was he to do in this unfeatured woodland? These soft south-country folk stuck to their roads, and the roads were forbidden him.

A little further and the track died away in a thicket of hazels. He drove his horse through the scrub and came out on a glade, where the ground sloped steeply to a jungle of willows, beyond which he had a glimpse through the drizzle of a grey-green fen. Clearly that was not his direction, and he turned sharply to the right along the edge of the declivity. Once more he was in the covert, and his ill-temper grew with every briar that whipped his face. Suddenly he halted, for he heard the sound of speech.

It came from just in front of him–a voice speaking loud and angry, and now and then a squeal like a scared animal’s. An affair between some forester and a poaching hind, he concluded, and would fain have turned aside. But the thicket on each hand was impenetrable, and, moreover, he earnestly desired advice about the road. He was hesitating in his mind, when the cries broke out again, so sharp with pain that instinctively he pushed forward. The undergrowth blocked his horse, so he dismounted and, with a hand fending his eyes, made a halter of the bridle and dragged the animal after him. He came out into a little dell down which a path ran, and confronted two human beings.

They did not see him, being intent on their own business. One was a burly fellow in a bottle-green coat, a red waistcoat and corduroy small clothes, from whose gap-toothed mouth issued volleys of abuse. In his clutches was a slim boy in his early teens, a dark sallow slip of a lad, clad in nothing but a shirt and short leather breeches. The man had laid his gun on the ground, and had his knee in the small of the child’s back, while he was viciously twisting one arm so that his victim cried like a rabbit in the grip of a weasel. The barbarity of it undid the traveller’s discretion.

“Hold there,” he cried, and took a pace forward.

The man turned his face, saw a figure which he recognised as a gentleman, and took his knee from the boy’s back, though he still kept a clutch on his arm.

“Sarvant, sir,” he said, touching his hat with his free hand. “What might ‘ee be wanting o’ Tom Heather?” His voice was civil, but his face was ugly.

“Let the lad go.”

“Sir Edward’s orders, sir–that’s Sir Edward Turner, Baronet, of Ambrosden House in this ‘ere shire, ‘im I ‘as the honour to serve. Sir Edward ‘e says, ‘Tom,’ ‘e says, ‘if ‘ee finds a poacher in the New Woods ‘ee knows what to do with ‘im without troubling me’; and I reckon I does know. Them moor-men is the worst varmints in the country, and the youngest is the black-heartedest, like foxes.”

The grip had relaxed and the boy gave a twist which freed him. Instantly he dived into the scrub. The keeper made a bound after him, thought better of it and stood sullenly regarding the traveller.

“I’ve been a-laying for the misbegotten slip them five weeks, and now I loses him, and all along of ‘ee, sir.” His tones suggested that silver might be a reasonable compensation.

But the young man, disliking his looks, was in no mood for almsgiving, and forgot the need of discretion. Also he came from a land where coin of the realm was scarce.

“If it’s your master’s orders to torture babes, then you and he can go to the devil. But show me the way out of this infernal wood and you shall have a shilling for your pains.”