FICTION

Escape in Spring

Theodore Goodridge Roberts June 15 1946
FICTION

Escape in Spring

Theodore Goodridge Roberts June 15 1946

Escape in Spring

The major knew his tactics, but no military manual covered the problem posed by the runaway at Barley’s Inn

Theodore Goodridge Roberts

THE ROAD was bad at the best of times, and now the frost was heaving out of it in “honey pots.” The down stage lost a wheel and in consequence reached Barley’s Tavern just an hour before the arrival of the up stage. And then, on top of all that, two horsemen arrived from opposite directions.

“Quality too, blister ’em!” muttered Timothy Barley, whose bedding accommodations were limited.

But rearrangements took care of the late arrivals, who ate supper side by side, though they had never met before. Each had a pair of saddlebags under his chair. The younger and smaller of the two, who had given his name to the taverner as Mr. Benson, kept his too-big long-skirted greatcoat on throughout the meal.

“The road is very bad, sir,” remarked young Benson in a small voice.

“Devilish bad,” agreed the other horseman, who had not given his name.

The taverner came sidling and crowding along between their backs and the wall, with three little roasted woodcock on a small platter.

“Three choice tidbits, gents,” he murmured. “Froze all winter, but still tasty an’ too delicate for rummy palates. I’ll leave the question o’ the extry bird to ye, major.”

He set the platter down.

“Very civil of you, Master Taverner—but why d’ye ‘major’ me?” returned the older and larger horseman.

“I still know a military gent when I sees ’im, sir. I wam’t bom an’ bred in these ’ere woods. I carried a musket at Waterloo in me youth, an’ seen the Iron Duke an’ Old Boney too.”

“Interesting and commendable, Sergeant Barley. Historical figures. Before my time. But may I ask if you know my name too?”

“I haven’t that ’onor, sir.”

“Smith.”

“Smith. Great ol’ army name an’ family. Thanky, sir.” *

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Escape in Spring

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Barley withdrew, but not quite satisfied.

"You are in the Army, Major Smith?” enquired Mr. Benson.

"I can’t deny it, and see no reason to do so. Fourteen years—and not done with it, I hope.”

"Were you in the Crimea, may I ask, sir?”

"I was there. But aren’t you eating the tasty tidbit?”

"A trifle too tasty for me. Do you know a Captain Spencer?”

“A trifle high, yes—but nothing comes amiss to a past connoisseur of Crimean rats. Trench rats. I beg your pardon, did you say Spencer? Or Spence?”

"Spencer. Captain John Spencer of the Forty-fourth.”

"Fve met him. Same brigade. He got a step recently, so I saw in The Gazette. A relative of yours?”

“Not exactly. Not at all in fact. But I know his fond parents, who talk of little else. What is he like?” "What’s he like? Steady soldier. Does his job. Nothing outstanding. Run of the mill.”

"You don’t seem to admire him greatly.”

"Not admire Johnny Spencer? Never gave the matter a thought— but since you mention it, I’ll say I don’t particularly. He’s neither admirable nor despicable, in my opinion. Strictly mediocre.”

Just then a heavy eater and drinker seated opposite, who had been staring at young Benson for minutes past, bawled out, "Why the hell don’t ye take off yer pappy’s overcoat?—or ain’t the room warm enough an’ the company good enough for yer blasted quality?”

All the diners stopped gobbling and guzzling, and raised and turned their faces and cocked their ears, so as not to miss anything that might come of that liquorish outburst. Young Benson went white, then red, gave his companion a quick and piteous glance and hung his head. Major Smith stood up, leaned forward slightly toward the questioner and stared.

"Did I hear anything?” he asked. Nobody enlightened him. "Nothing? Good! And as for you wfith the bottle in front of you, have your fun, my friend—but mind your

manners. Have I made my meaning clear?”

“Clear as mud,” said a man at the far end of the table.

Major Smith shifted his stare.

"Say that again—but name your next of kin to the landlord first,” he said, coldly.

Timothy Barley spoke next and last, with a rolling pin in his right hand.

"He meant to say glass, sir. Clear as glass. Leave it to me, major.”

Smith and young Benson left the room a few minutes later, taking their saddlebags. In the narrow hall they paused while the major said, speaking low and fast, that he would go out and see to the horses and put the saddles and bridles in a safe place; and he advised young Benson to go to his room and lock his door, just in case the rummies got out of hand. Upon his return from the stable he met the taverner in the kitchen and asked the way to his bed.

"Best room in the ’ouse, sir,” Barley informed him in guarded tones.

Barley took up a candle in his left hand, the rolling pin still in his right, and led up the kitchen staircase and along a passage to a closed door.

"Ye’ll maybe hear brawls an’ battles before mornin’, sir; and for that reason mostly, but for the quality o’ the bed too, not to mention the temporary congestion, Fve doubled ye up with poor young Master Benson, who acts like he’s scairt of his own shadder, sir.”

Then Barley moved on with candle and rolling pin. The major turned the knob of the door and pushed, but without result. He tapped lightly with a finger.

"Is it you?” asked a whisper at the edge of the door.

"It’s your friend Smith,” he whispered back.

A key clicked and he was admitted to the room, but without an inch to spare, and the door was shut and locked again instantly.

"My dear lad, what are you afraid of?” protested the major, not unkindly. "Those fellow's may become unpleasant, but with Barley and his rolling pin down there and me here, there’ll be no danger, I assure you. And still in boots and spurs! You suffer with nerves, it seems. Perhaps you have been ill? But it’s none of my business, lad. You have nothing

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to fear tonight, so pipe down and undress and go to bed. You look as if you need sleep and rest, and I feel that way, however I may look.”

The room was poorly lighted by two tallow candles on a dressing table and a sulky fire in the chimney. Young Benson, still in the outsized greatcoat, faced his companion.

“No!” he cried.

“No? D’ye mean you don’t need sleep?”

“I don’t want to sleep. AU I want is to get out of here!”

“Pull yourself together, boy. You sound like an unweaned infant. How old are you anyway?”

“I’m 21.”

“You’re what? I don’t believe it! That’s a man’s age.”

“It’s the truth. Oh, won’t you understand?”

“Understand what? Speak up, boy.”

“That I’m not what I—pretend to be.”

“And what’s that exactly?”

“A man.”

“I agree with you. I never saw a less manly man of your age. Where have you been all your life? In a young ladies’ school?”

“I’m telling you—oh! you fool!— I’m not a man! I’m a woman!”

The major stared. His weathered cheeks went grey, then red. He looked shocked, then offended, then foolish. He lowered his eyes, dropped his saddlebags on the floor and sank into the nearest chair.

“God bless my soul!” he said in a weak and uncertain voice.

His companion sat down too, and covered her face with her hands.

“So that’s it,” mumbled the soldier. “That’s what’s the matier with you. A woman. But you fooled Barley too!”

Just then an uproar of thick, wild voices surged from the lower regions in a travesty of song. The girl shivered, her hands still at her face.

“It sounds bad, but there’s no danger,” he assured her. “The old taverner can keep ’em within bounds. You can trust him to handle a mob of drunks, even if he didn’t recognize you for—ah!—what you are.”

“But—I think—he did,” she stuttered between sobs.

“That fellow?” he protested. “And I didn’t? Confound his impudence! But why d’ye say so? Was he impertinent—uncivil—in any way offensive? blast ’im!”

“Oh no!” she cried. “Nothing like that—but I saw it—in his eyes.”

She produced a handkerchief from a pocket of the greatcoat and dabbed at her face.

“And not in mine,” he muttered. “The fool of the world!” He raised his voice. “But I must ask you—not that it’s any concern of mine— why you did it. Why this disguise? What are you up to? Not that it’s any of my business—unless I can be of some assistance to you, my dear—ah!— madam.”

She replied in a clear voice, but without looking at him. “I’m running away. I’m escaping from my guardians—to marry against their wishes. I’m an orphan and have lived with my guardians five years. They are very kind to me and fond of me—but they are high-handed and pigheaded

when they set their hearts on something. On their son, for instance. I’ve heard of nothing else for five years now. That Captain Spencer I asked you about.”

“What’s that?” he interrupted. “About Spencer? But why? What about him?”

“He’s their only child. He’s wonderful — despite your contrary opinion. And the poor dears think I am wonderful too. So he’s to marry me when he gets home, which may be any day now. Not that he is aware of it. Oh no! It’s to be a glorious surprise for him.”

“But they can’t do that!” cried the major.

“Not if I marry someone else,” said the girl. “And that’s what I intend to do. The man I love -and who loves me. That’s why I’m running away in my guardian’s clothes. We spent last winter in St. John, and I met him there. I met him at balls and parties. He loves me too. Desperately. Devotedly.”

“I never heard of such a thing,” he said. “It’s preposterous. Marry a man off without so much as by his leave? Or yours. It can’t be done. But why do they want to do it? What’s your name—if you don’t mind telling me?”

“Jane Shafto.”

“Shafto?” he murmured, and shook his head. “But what’s their idea? Are you a tremendous heiress or something?”

“Oh, no, not tremendous. And they are not that kind of people. They like me for myself. And I am very fond of them. So I mean to marry the man I love before their son gets home, to avoid arguments and unpleasant scenes—for his sake as well as mine.”

“It’s crazy! I happen to know John S|>encer, as I’ve told you. He’s no fool. Not the marrying kind, I mean. He’s nothing but a soldier. Devoted to duty and all that. Wedded to the Army. A dull dog. And a grown man. Stubborn as a mule. Known throughout the brigade for it. Nobody could make him marry anybody.”

“You may be right, Major Smith, but you don’t know his parents. But he’s safe, for I’m taking no chances. I’ll be in St. John toinorrow, with the man I love—if I get out of this place alive.”

At that moment the bellowing below cast off its last pretense to harmony and rang up jaggedly in furious yells and howls punctuated by resounding thumps and crashes. The girl gasped and trembled.

“Calm yourself, Miss Shafto,” said the major. “You are as safe here with me as you would be in St. John, and perhaps safer—if those drunks don’t set the house afire. But even if they do, we can escape by way of the window and the roof of the porch. I’ve looked our position over. Line of retreat. Now I beg you to rest. Remove your boots, at least, and permit me to remove mine.”

As Jane Shafto doubled forward from her chair to unbuckle a spur, there broke out a banging rush of booted feet along the passage. The din surged up and culminated in a trampling and cursing and grunting just outside the door; and even as she

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straightened up with a cry of terror and the major sprang to his feet, the pinewood panels bulged, the lock exploded like a grenade, the door burst open and two large men fell into the room and rolled on the floor as one, clinging together with arms and legs and teeth.

“I’m sorry for this,” apologized the major. “Too much for old Barley evidently. Nothing to worry about, however. Excuse me a moment.”

He stooped and grabbed the entwined rollers with both hands, heaved them up on their feet for a moment, hurled them to the floor again, heaved them upright again and rushed them, still as one, over the threshold and against the farther wall of the passage, with all their combined weight. He released them there, and they crumpled to the floor, untwined, and lay still. He stooped again, collared one with each hand and backed down the passage, dragging them along like sacks of potatoes. The girl moved at last, suddenly and swiftly. She snatched a candle from the dressing table and darted into the passage in time to see her roommate tumble the limp bushwhackers down the back stairs. She was seated again, and the candle was in its place when he re-entered the room. He closed the door, then stooped and took up several pieces of the broken lock, only to let them fall. He turned to his companion and spoke gently and apologetically, but without looking at her.

“I doubt that we’ll be troubled again by those two, but others may come barging up at us, so if you wish to take the road now, Miss Shafto, I am at your service.”

“Oh, I do!” she cried. “This minute! Oh, how kind of you!”

He tossed out the saddlebags, extinguished the candles, then lowered her from the window ledge to the roof of the porch and followed. He scrambled from there to the ground and told her to slide down to him and fear nothing. She obeyed; and though he caught her and set her on her feet with an air of ease, he realized she was more substantial than he had guessed. He understood now her adherence to the greatcoat as an important item of her disguise. The half-hearted barks of a dog in the stable were as nothing against the row from taproom and kitchen.

They had gone a slow mile, walking their horses most of the way, with the major leading, when Miss Shafto cried out suddenly. Smith turned his big horse end for end like a shot.

“What is it?” he cried.

“But this isn’t your way!” she exclaimed. “You were headed upriver.”

“Is that all?” he said, drily, after a momentary pause. “True, I was headed upriver yesterday; but that I’m heading down today is equally true.”

He spun the big horse again.

“But you are letting me take you out of your way,” she protested.

“I am my own master, madam, when not about Her Majesty’s business,” he replied, even more drily than before.

Here and there, where the stage road wound between choppings and clearances in the heavy forest, there

was light enough to trot by. Smith could have travelled faster, but having seen -at a glance that riding astride was a new thing to his companion he did not force the pace. After miles of it he dismounted and produced a flask and sweet biscuits from a saddlebag.

“You didn’t eat much supper,” he said.

“That terrible woodcock!—and those horrid men!” she cried. “I feared I might never eat again.”

She inclined sidewise from her saddle and toppled into his arms, scattering biscuits from his left hand. He frowned as he set her on her feet, but forced a polite smile to cancel it. For 10 minutes or so they sipped from the flask, turn and turn about, and munched biscuits.

“I appreciate your extraordinary kindness,” she murmured.

“Nothing extraordinary,” he muttered. “Common civility.”

Dawn found them near a small, new farmstead set among stumpy clearings. The major dismounted and let down the bars and led the way through and around stumps and mossy humps. The settlers, a young couple with only two babies to date, were up and about and all agog with hospitality and curiosity. The major and the farmer took the horses to the barn.

“Ye don’t belong hereabouts,” said the farmer.

“That’s right,” said the visitor. “I’m a wandering soldier. Home’s where duty calls me.”

“Ye got a military look, sir,” said the farmer with a wink. “An’ maybe a military bottle?” and he winked again. “My woman don’t hold with hard licker;” and his eyelid drooped a third time.

The soldier took the hint. He seemed to be well supplied, for the flask was not the one from which he and the girl had sipped. The farmer swigged, blinked, took another pull.

“I see ye ain’t married yet,” he gasped.

“Right,” said the soldier.

The farmer wiped his eyes and looked too knowing for words.

“Reckon the young lady an’ yerself’s on the way to the parson right now,” he crowed.

The major looked startled, then guilty, then angry.

“Young lady? I don’t understand you, my man.”

“Mister., or captin, or kunnel, now harky to me,” said the farmer, wagging a finger. “If ye look to a gent’s coat an’ britches an’ hat an’ boots, never mind how big, to hide the truth o’ the reel nater o’ wot ye got thar, ye’re green. Green as grass ! Crazy!” After a moment’s reflection, the major replied firmly.

“I thank you, my friend, and assure you that my intentions are strictly honorable. The fact is, I am escorting her to St. John to marry the man of her choice.”

“D’ye mean to marry somebody else?”

“Exactly.”

“Then I’ll say—but no offense intended, mister!—ye be more of a fool than ye look!”

After a breakfast of fried pork, buckwheat pancakes, molasses, doughnuts and boiled tea, the travellers slept for two hours, Miss Shafto

on the best (and only) bed and Major Smith on blankets on the kitchen floor.

They reached the rocky town at sunset, in good order.

“May I suggest Lumley’s foryou?” said the major. “It’s the most respectable hotel here and Mrs. Lumley will be able to supply you with more suitable clothing than you’re wearing now, I’m sure. And I shall put up at the Crown—where I’ll stop 24 hours, or even 36, in case you should have further need of my services.”

“But I must go straight to the Brigstocks, for there’s no time to lose,” she said.

“You are safe from interference until tomorrow, surely,” he protested. “And you should be more suitably attired, I think.”

“Oh, do I look so terrible?” she exclaimed. “But he won’t care what I have on,” she added, quickly and emphatically.

“My mistake,” he muttered.

They rode to the tall residence of the Brigstock family in silence. He dismounted, lifted and lowered her, remounted, raised his hat and rode away. She hesitated, looking after him, before turning to the brass bellpull beside the door; but if she called after him it was in too low a voice to be heard, for he did not glance back.

Ned Tuck, proprietor of The Crown, was agreeably surprised to see the major again so soon.

“Did you leave something behind, air?” he asked.

“The guineas I lost at whist, certainly,” said the major.

“Hah! Does that mean a party tonight, sir? And tfie same gents, sir?”

“If you will be so kind as to arrange it, Ned. In the meantime, your biggest tub an’ hottest water an’ best dinner.”

“That’s the speerit wot wins ware!” cried Mr. Tuck.

Four hours later the major, playing his cards as if inspired, was five pounds and ten bob to the good, but in cynical humor. Then Tuck rapped, entered and whispered in his ear.

“A young lady all adither to see you, sir.”

“Are you sure of that? A lady?”

“She’s got a hood over her head, sir, but I be as sure of her gentility as I be of her sect.”

The major laid down his cards and stood up slowly and spoke with a voice and manner of abstraction to his companions.

“You must excuse me—can’t say for how long, but please carry on. Perhaps you will let our friend Ned take my hand and stake.”

He found the caller in the lower hall and had to look closely to see that it was his companion of the road, for she was in feminine attire and cloaked and hooded, and the light was dim. Now her feet were in little French slippers instead of large boots and spurs. She put out a hand to him and spoke in a very small voice.

“Lucy Brigstock lent them to me. It was very kind of her, wasn’t it? She’s very generous, but not exactly my shape.”

“Charming,” he said, looking past and over her and all around. “But are you alone?”

“Oh, yes, I—I ran away,” she murmured.

“What?” he exclaimed, staring at her. “Again?”

“Yes. From William this time. It must seem very silly to you, after all the trouble I’ve been.”

“William? You can’t mean that wonderful lover of yours? That marvel of manhood you ran away from your home to marry come hell or high water!”

“Yes,” she whispered. “That same William. But I was mistaken in him. Or in myself. Perhaps I am most to blame—for it is I who changed my mind.”

After a brief silence he said, “And what are your plans now, if I may ask?”

“Of course you may ask. Nobody has a better right to ask. But I haven’t any plans.”

“But you will go straight back to your friends, of course.”

“I don’t want to. I don’t want to be married to that son of theirs.” “They can’t make you marry him. Nor can they make him marry you. He is not a child. Far from it. Your fears are silly.”

“But you don’t know my guardians. I don’t want to go back. Can’t you think of something else—another plan for me—you are so wise and resourceful—and obliging.”

He shook his head, staring down at her slippers.

“I’ve been no more than civil, Miss Shafto. Nothing out of the way. As to a new plan of action for you, I can only suggest that you pass the night here and give your situation careful consideration. Mrs. Tuck will look after you.”

“Whatever you think best,” she murmured.

“But you must think for yourself too,” he exclaimed, with a touch of irritation.

She bowed her head.

“I’m sorry,” he continued, contritely and earnestly. “But how can I help you if you don’t try to reason for yourself? I can do no more than offer the advice of a well-meaning stranger. Situations and affairs of this nature are entirely out of my line. My considered advice—but of an outsider, mind you!—is to take the upriver stage at seven tomorrow morning and go home to your friends and guardians. And to be frank with them. Frank and firm. Show them you are your own master. Mistress, rather! If you will engage to do this, I will follow with the horses—and close enough to keep an eye on you.”

She murmured, “You are very kind.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said. “It’s nothing. But where’s your horse, by the way?”

“Oh! I forgot all about him. He’s in the Brigstock stable.”

“That’s all right, I’ll see to him. Now permit me to fetch Mrs. Tuck to you. A kind and understanding woman.”

Miss Shafto left town by the upriver stage at seven the next morning, still in Miss Brigstock’s frock, petticoats, slippers and what not. She looked composed and charming, but her heart and head were in confusion. Half an hour later she was calmed and cheered by the sight of a familiar figure on a big horse, and leading a smaller, yellow horse, on the road

behind. It was the reserved but resourceful major. He came no closer, however, and even fell back and out of sight before noon. She did not glimpse him again until past three in the afternoon, and then not for long. He seemed to be keeping his distance intentionally. She saw nothing of him at Barley’s Tavern that night, but she felt vastly relieved there at not being recognized by the old taverner, who was sporting a black eye and a torn ear. The little cavalcade reappeared next morning, but not for long. She saw nothing of it that night at Willow Inn or all next day; and her heart became as heavy as the road.

It was dark when Jane Shafto turned in at the big front gate of the Spencer place. She was halfway to the big front door when she became suddenly aware of someone beside her. But she did not start or cry out, for she knew who it was without looking.

“You’re here, safe and sound,” said Major Smith.

She nodded.

“If I ever marry—which isn’t likely—it will be to please myself,” she said. “And I’ll have John Spencer’s support. He will be on my side. It will be two against two.”

Instead of saying yes to that, he

placed a hand lightly on her arm and halted her.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said. “I’m afraid I’ve misled you concerning that fellow. I was honest about him at first. But now—the only way I can help you now is to stop him from coming home for a while longer. You see, I know now that he—that you couldn’t depend on his support now. I’m sorry about this. I’ve not been quite honest with you, I fear.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she whispered.

“It’s not easy to explain,” he muttered. “I’m no good at this sort of thing. Not in my line. But I want you to know I am ashamed of myself. You called me dependable—and I’ve failed you. I—but what’s the use of this? I’m a fool and I admit it! But I’ll keep away until—until I’m— until I get a grip on myself anyhow. I’ll write them a letter—the poor old dears! Recalled to duty. Leave it to me.”

Her arm trembled beneath his hand.

“Who are you?” she whispered.

“Johnny Spencer—that poor fool !”

Then she began to laugh. And she kept on laughing. She didn’t stop when he took her in his arms even. She didn’t stop until he kissed her on the mouth.