‘Do you mind the wee house o’ Breckonside?’ It was Silver Sand who was speaking, and we were all gathered about the big, open fireplace of Isle Rathan in the frosty gloaming.
‘Mind it!’ cried a voice, quick and indignant as of one having authority, ‘mind it! I heard the tale when I was a lassie, and I never want to hear it mair. It’s eneuch to keep us a’ from sleepin’! We’ll hae nane o’ your stories o’ witches an’ warlocks in my hoose, if ye please, Mr John Faa!
But at this there was, of course, great wonderment among all the younger folk. The lads gathered in closer, where they sat making baskets of plaited willow wands, while the maidens disclaimed their desire to hear any horrible tale –but nevertheless hitched in their chairs closer so that they might not lose a word. They looked over their shoulders whenever the door opened suddenly behind them, and I doubt not, felt pleasurable fears sting them momently in the marrow each time a dog barked.
‘Aweel,’ said Silver Sand quietly, ‘since it’s no your pleasure, Mistress may, we will say nothing more of the wee cot o’ Breckonside, the auld miser Hobby Kinmont, and that puir young lass Elsie, wha was shut up for the space o’ a simmer’s nicht wi’ the terrible Mounster…’
‘Wait till ma mither gangs to the milk-house and then tell us,’ whispered one of the bright-eyed maidens, whose work had power to move the old wanderer’s heart to tell his best tales.
‘Oh, deed,’ laughed the mistress of Isle Rathan, ‘ye can drive on wi’ your tale, Silver Sand. Dinna mak’ a ‘mounster’ o’ me in my ain hoose – but gin the bairns dinna sleep this nicht after haein’ your daft havers dinned in their lugs, you an’ the guidman may e’en bide in the turret chamber wi’ the rats or sleep in the barn gin ye like, for into my kitchen ye dinna come nor lie in bed o’ mine this nicht!’
‘Weel’ said Silver Sand philosophically, ‘I hae spent some time in waur places than either - and wi’ that same guidman o’ yours too, Mistress May. But wi’ your permission, I will tell the tale of ‘How Elsie danced for her life.’’
And this was Silver Sand’s Story
There is no house on Breckonside now (he said), only as ye gang your ways up the brae-face, at the turn of the road where the burn runs bonny and clear down in the dell, and the heather reaches down among the green breckons that give the place its name, ye may see a kind of knowe or hillock, that is, it may be, a thocht greener than the lave. Not one stone is to be seen upon another. The kindly mould is over all. The hemlock and the bluidy fingers (foxglove) grow tall where lovers caaed their cracks by the inglenook, and of all the well-set yaird where the miser grew his lint and dibbled his potatoes, only a single lilac-bush now stands in the corner that overlooks the road.
Now at this lonely yet heartsome place dwelt for many a year auld Hobby Kinmont and his daughter Bell. She had the name of being bonny to look on in her young days, and many a lover come to see the miser’s heiress that would fain have hung up his hat behind the door and taken his seat at Hobby Kinmont’s table as the auld man’s son-in-law.
But auld Hobby was a far seeing carle and not to be cheated by any ‘flairdie’ (blarney).
‘When I hae a want o’ ony guid-sons,’ he would say, ‘I’ll put up a notice in the window or hae it intimated in the kirk!’
Hobby had the name of a warlock, too, and the neighbours used to wonder at the strange noises that were to be heard at mirk-midnicht about the cot of Breckonside, and the lights that gaed wandering athwart the leas. It ‘werna canny’ they said, nor more than decent that Hobby should always have the best lint to make his linen sheets of, the earliest potatoes by a clear fortnight, the cleanest wool whereof to weave his homespun. )For Hobby was a weaver as well as a bonnet-laird on a small scale.)
Above all Hobby had the name of siller, and nothing makes for envy like that, whether in town-street or countryside. ‘Envying and grieving at the guid o’ your neighbour; aye, there ye hae it bairns’ (said Silver Sand, nodding warningly at us to point the moral. The love of siller is the root of all evil, and even the very name of it breeds unkindness and illwill).
But upon a day this Bell Kinmont, that had been counted the richest-tochered lass in seven parishes, settled the matter of a son-in-law for her father without consulting her father. There was a Hieland marching regiment in Dumfries, and squads of them used to tramp here and there through the countryside, airing the braw feathers in their bonnets, and drawing in the young lads to list with them by the glint of their accoutrements, or, maybe, the merry noise of the pipe and drum that went before them and set the pulses jumping.
So with a blythe young Hieland sergeant in His Majesty’s 93rd regiment, MacHamish by name, Bell Kinmont took the road, and the auld men only sat the stiller at his loom and caaed away at the shuttle the harder. And if he could not manage to weave himself a new daughter, at least he worked so hard that he seldom minded the one he had lost. The name of her never more crossed his lips. And when anybody, gentle or simple, speered for Bell, he shut the door in their faces and syne went ben again to his weaving.
So a year or two slipped by, and maybe another five or six to the back of that, and still no word of Bell. When, true as I am telling ye, who but Bell brought back work of herself. Faith, and it was a strange word! I mind it clear as yesterday for it was me, Silver Sand, that am this day and old, done man, who gat the first glimpse of her.
It was a fine summer morn, early in June, and the clouds in the sky to the east were just the colour of the first briar rosebuds in the hedge by the roadside. I came up the brae whistling like a lintie and as free o’ care, for my heart was light in those good days. There stood the cot of Breckonside before me, shining white in the sun. For the auld miser, though he spared most other things, never was a sparer of good whitewash. I was just beginning to listen for the click-clack of Hobby’s shuttle, when down by the waterside methought I saw a ferlie.
Fegs, I said to myself that surely the auld times had come back again and that the wee folk were disporting themselves once more in brought daylight. For on the grass by the burn a bonny bit bairn ran hither and thither wavin’ its hands and laughing to the heavens for very gladness. The night had been calm, a ‘gossamer nicht,’ as we gipsy folk call it, and from hedge to hemlock and from lowly breckon to tall Queen o’ the Meadow the silver threads were stretched taut like the cordage of some sea-going ship. The dew shone silver clear on ilka silken strand, and the blobs o’ it were like pearls and diamonds in the burning sun.
And aye the langer I stood the wilder the bairn ran and loupit, lightfoot as a fairy herself. ‘Bonny – bonny – oh, bonny!’ she cried, clapping her hands and laughing, ‘see mither,mither, are they not unco bonny?’
Then by the side of the beck, as if, being wearied with travel, she had set her down to take a drink of the caller burn water, I saw a woman sit. She was aneath a bush of hazel, and her head was resting tired-like on her hand. So, being back there in the shadow, I had not noticed her at first, being taken up, as was small wonder, with the sight of that bonny yellow-haired barin flightering here and there like a butterfly in the sun.
Then the wee lass saw me and ran whatever she could to me. She took my hand and syne looked up in my face as trustful-like as if she had kenned me all her days.
‘Here, mannie,’ she cried, ‘come and wauken my minnie to me, for I canna. She winna hearken when wee Elsie speaks to her?’
Hand in hand we went up to the puir thing, and even as I gaed a great fear gripped me by the heart. For the woman sat still even when my step must have sounded in her hear. I laid my hand on her, and as I am a living man, she was clay-cauld. The bairn looked ever up into my face.
‘Can you no wauken my mither either?’ she said, wistfully.
‘No,’ says I, ‘No, my puir wee lassie!’ For, truth to tell, I kenned not what to say.
‘Will minnie never wauken?’ she asked again, bright as a button.
‘I fear not, bonnie lassie,’ said I, and the tear was in my eye.
Then the elf clappit her hands and danced like a yellow butterfly over the lea.
‘Then she willna greet ony mair! She willna be hungry ony mair. She will never need bit o’ meat nor thread o’ claes for ever mair.’ She lilted the words, almost as if she had been singing a tune. ‘She will be richt pleased my minnie. For oh, sir, she grat sair and often. She carried me in her airms till her ain feet were hurtit and she could gang nae farther. Late yestreen she sat doon here to wash them, and I sat took and after that she cuddled me in her airms. Mannie, are ye no richt glad for my minnie?’
I telled her that I was glad, for naught less would satisfy her, though even as I spak the words the sob rose in my throat.
And as we stood there looking at the woman, sitting with her face on her hands, what should happen but that the auld miser should come hirpling to the door, and there too, looking over his shoulder, was Daft Jeremy, that the village bairns were want to pook at and call the ‘Mounster.’
‘What hae ye there, gipsy Jock?’ the old man cried, shaking his stick at me; ‘keep awa frae my door wi’ your doxies and flichterin’ changeling bairns.’
But I was civil to him for his age’s sake and also because of the witless man that was looking over his shoulder. For it is not good to cross such as the Lord has smitten in their understanding, and so do my own folk never.
‘It is a woman, Laird Kinmont,’ quoth I, ‘that hath set herself down to die by your burnside.’
‘Die,’ cried he with a queer scream most like a frighted hen flying down off the baulks, ‘whatna word is that to speak? A woman dead by my burnside – what richt had she there! What has ta’en sic a liberty wi’ Hobby Kinmont?’
‘Nay, that you can come and see for yoursel’’ said I, a little nettled at the carle’s hardness of heart. So the auld miser, bent and stiff, came hirpling barehead down the path, and behind him, looking most uncanny, danced Daft Jeremy, combing his hair with a weaver’s heckle and muttering to himself. The morning sunshine fell fair on this strange couple, and when she saw him the little maid let go my hand, but he pushed her off. Wherat being nothing affronted, the witch caught at his stick and pulled it away from him before he could resist. Then she gat astride and played horses with it on the green grass of the burnside dell. It was like an incantation.
But without heeding her the old man went to the woman, and, lifting up her head, looked steadfastly in her face.
‘God in his heaven be merciful,’ he cried; ‘it is my ain dochter Bell!’
Then the ‘naiteral’ laughed loud and long, and, wrapping his ‘heckle’ in a wisp of paper, he played a tune upon it with his mouth, dancing round and crying, ‘There’s her richt for ye – ye said she hadna a richt, Laird Kinmont! Ye were that hard ye wadna fie the fremit woman room to die at your dykeside. But Bell has come home to claim her ain. Coffin and clay- coffin and clay! Sax foot o’ clean kirkyard sods! Faith, I wish a’ Daft Jeremy’s enemies had the same, nae mair and nae less. But it’s as weel as it is, Laird Kinmont – for Jeremy canna be doin’ with grown women aboot the hoose o’ Breckonside. And it’s him that has the say noo, ye ken!’
But the old man answered nothing, good nor ill. He only stood and looked down at his daughter, muttering to himself words that sounded like ‘Bell has comed hame… My bairn has comed back to me at last!’
So in time the miser buried his daughter decently, and took the little lass hame to him to bring up in the cot-house of Breckonside. But when this came to be talked of in the countryside, there was a well-to-do woman in Dumfries toon, a Mistress Comly or Comline, that was some kin to Bell Kinmont through her ain mother, and when she heard o’ the puir bit bairn shut up in that lanesome house with only an auld miser and a daft man, she had heart pity on her, and as soon as she had shut her shop one Saturday afternoon, off she sets to Breckonside in a pony cart that she used to bring her goods up from the Port.
It was but a cauldrife welcome she gat at the white house of Breckonside, but sorrow a bit Margaret Comline cared for that. She tied up her sonsy beast, that was, like hersel’, fat as pats of butter, to the yet-post of the old miser’s garden. And syne, when he came to the door himself, she did not take a couple of minutes in telling the auld runt her business plump and plain.
‘I hae comed to ask ye to pit awa’ that daft man,’ she said, and, ‘get a decent woman for a housekeeper, Laird Kinmont.’
‘Meanin’ yoursel’, Margar’t Comline,’ interrupted the miser, with a cunning smirk. He had shut the door in her face, and was conducting negotiations through a crack.
‘Me be your housekeeper,’ cried the visitor, ‘me that is a rate-payer and a weel-considered indweller in the burgh o’ Dumfries. Man, I wadna cross your doorstep though ye were Provost. But I hear that ye hae this bit bairn in the hoose, and a lassie-bairn too (that’s full cousin’s dochter to mysel’). I hae come to tell ye that it is neither Christian nor decent to bring up the wee thing but-and-ben wi’ a kenned ‘naiteral’ like Daft Jeremy, that has twice been tried for his life for the sheddin’ o bluid!’
From behind the closed inner door of the cot-house there came a high-pitched angry cry, that garred the very blood run chill as ice in Margaret Comline’s veins. I mean that the thought of it did afterwards. For at the time she just looked about her to see that Donald, her pony, was not so far away, and that the road was clear to the light market cart in case that she had to make a break for it. She had eke a stieve staff in her hand, that the loons of the port kenned brawly the weight of.
It was the voice of the man wanting wint crying out to be at her that she heard.
‘She has ta’en frae me my guid-name,’ his words reached her though the very stone and lime of the house, ‘and she wad tak’ the bonny siller oot o’ your black kist that you and Jeremy herd sae carefully. Gie the woman the bit lassie-bairn, Lairn Kinmont, and let her be gaun. For less winna serve her, and, forbye, a bairn is nocht but an expense and an eatin’ up o’ guid meat in ony man’s hoose!’
And while the din was at its height in the cot, there came a sound to Mistress Comline’s ear that garred her kind heart loup within her. It was like the whimpering of a bairn that is ill-used and dares not cry out loud. And with that she forgat her fear of the strange ‘naiteral,’ Daft Jeremy, and with her naked hands she shook the door of the cot-house of Breckonside till the iron stinchel clattered in its ring.
The Magistrates o’ Dumfries shall ken o’ this or I am a day aulder!’ she cried in to them. ‘Gie me oot the lassie or the preventative men shall hear o’ the barrels ye hae hidden in the yaird. Supervisor Imrie shall be here and search every inch high and low if ye lay as muckle as a finger on the most innocent wean!’
And even as she cried out threatenings and shook the stout oaken door so that the leaves almost fell asunder, Margaret Comline heard a noise behind her, and whipped about quickly with her heart in her mouth, for she thought it was Daft Jeremy come out to slay her.
But instead it was the wee lass herself that had escaped by a kind of miracle through the window o’ the ‘aumry’ or pantry-closet. For Laird Kinmont had it closed with a board, grudging the expense of glass. The lass was greeting and laughing at the same time – feared to the marrow of her bits of bones, but yet crouse withal. Mistress Comline marvelled to see her.
‘I hae left the stead o’ my teeth in his hand, I wot!’ she said as Mistress Comline helped her into the light card at the roadside.
‘And see what I brocht wi me,’ she added as they drove away. It was a shagreen leather pocket-book like those which well-to-do farmers carry, or rich English drovers that come to the cattle trysts to buy for the English market. And Mistress Comline, struck with fear lest she should be deleted as a thief, would have turned back. But that at that very moment, out of the door of the cot, there burst a terrifying figure – even Daft Jeremy himself, a great flesher’s knife uplifted in his hand. He was scraitching out words without meaning and looked so fleysome that the decent woman e’en slipped the shagreen purse into her reticule basket and laid whip-lash to Donald till that pampered beast must have thought that the punishment of all his sins had overtaken him at once.
The ‘naiteral’ pursued after them with these and such like affrighting outcries to the very entering of Dumfries town. And never had Margaret Comline, decent woman, been so glad to recognise His Majesty’s authority as when she saw Supervisor Imrie with two-three o’ his men come riding up from the Brig-End and out upon the green grass of the Terreggles Paes. But she said nothing, only gave them a good day in passing and bade them ‘beware o’ that puir ‘naiteral,’ Daft Jeremy, that was in one o’ his fits o’ anger that day.’
‘Sic a craitur should be in the Towbooth. He is a danger to the lieges!’ said Supervisor Imrie, adding more cautiously, ‘that is, were it no that he was be a cess on the burgh and pairish!’
When Mistress Comline gat to her own door she first delivered Donald into the hands of her serving-prentic, Robin Garmorie, as stout and blythe a lad as ever walked the Plainstanes. But the wee lass she took by the hand up to her own chamber, and there she stripped her to the skin and washed her and put fine raiment on her, new from the shop – aye, and did not rest from her labours till she had gathered every auld rag that she found on her and committed them to the flames, as if they had been art and part in the wizardry of Laird Kinmont, her grandfather, and the coming ill-repute of the white cot-house on the brae-face of Breckonside.
For at that time it was never suspected by what dread means it came to pass that auld miser Hobby had grown so passing rich, nor yet the bond that was between him and his strange house-mate and crony, Daft Jeremy. But had Mistress Comline examined what was contained in the shagreen pocket-book, she might have come nearer to the truth than an entire bench of magistrates summoned and set aside for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of them that do well.
But fearing she knew not clearly what, she sealed it up in clean white wrapper and laid it aside in her drawer, saying to herself ‘If this be honestly come by, the laird is no the man to forget to ca’ in for his ain.’ And if no…’ Here a shake of the head and a shrewd smile intimated that the contents of the pocket-book might one day be useful to its finder, little Elsie Comline, as she was now to be named.
‘And wha has a better richt!’ the shopkeeper would add, perhaps to salve her conscience in the matter.
But, indeed, it was but seldom, the pocket-book once safe in her drawer, that she thought about the matter at all. For Margaret Comline was a busy woman of affairs, having under her serving-lassies and prentice-loons, a shop on the ground floor of a house in the Vennel, and a well-patronised stall in the market. All day she went to and fro, busily commending her goods and reproving her underlings with equal earnestness and point. Sunday and Saturday the wrinkle was never off her brow. Like Martha in the Scripture, she was careful and troubled about many things. She read but seldom, and when she did her memory retained not long the imprint of what she read. So that our young monkey, Elsie, being fresh from the mischief-making of the grammar school, where she was drilled with a class of boys, used to shift the marker of woven silk back ten pages or so in the godly book over which her foster mother fell asleep on Sabbath afternoons. By which means Mistress Comline was induced to peruse the same improving passage at least fifty times in the course of a year, yet without once discovering or for a moment suspecting the fact.
For all that , she saw to it that Elsie did her nightly school tasks, recommending the master to ‘palmie’ her well if she should ever come to school unprepared. But, being a quick and ready learner, the young lass needed the less encouragement of that kind.
As she grew older, too, Elsie would, upon occasions, serve a customer in the shop, though Margaret Comline never allowed her to stand on the street among the babble of tongues at the market stalls. In a little time she could distinguish the hanks of yarn and thread, the webs of wincey and bolts of linen as well as her mistress, and was counted a shrewd and capable hand at a bargain before she was fifteen.
All this time her grandfather, the old miser Hobby, lived on in the little white house up among the fir woods of Breckonside, growing ever harder and richer, at least according to the clashes of the country folk. By day, and sometimes far into the night, the click of his shuttle was never silent, and being an old man it was thought a marvel how he could sit so long at his loom. And still Daft Jeremy abode with him and filled his pirns. Sometimes the ‘naiteral’ would sit on the dyke-top at the end of the cottage and laugh at the farmers as they rode by, crying names and unco words after them, so that many shunned to pass that way in the gloaming, for fear of the half-witted, strong creature that mopped and mowed and danced at the lonely gable-end. And they were of excellent judgment who did so.
But when Riddick of Langbarns broke his neck-bone within a mile of Laird Kinmont’s loaning, and less than a month after that Lang Hutchin was fand, one snowy Sabbath morn, lying dead with never a mark on his body save that his face was twisted out of all image of mankind and his e’en terrible to see, there were those who began to whisper fearsome things about the innocent-appearing white cot at the top of the Lang Wood o’ Breckonside.
Yet there were others again, and they a stout-hearted majority, who scoffed and told how Riddick had been seen in market carrying more than his load of whisky, and that as for Lang Hutchin had he not dared his Maker that day to strike him dead if he spoke not the truth – all that heard him well knowing that even as he uplifted his hand he lied in his throat!
Nor was Elsie wholly forgotten by her only near of kin. Twice or thrice a year there came from the cottage a web of fine cloth, woven as only Laird Kinmont could weave it, with the inscription written plainly thereon, ‘To be sold for the benefit of the upkeep of my grand-daughter Elsie Kinmont or MacHamish,’ the latter being the name of the Highland sergeant who in past years had charmed the heart of the dead woman Bell, so that she counted it a light thing to leave her father’s hearthstone to follow the tuck of drum.
Which seeing, Mistress Comline would toss her head and explode in incontinent scorn, ‘MacSkirmish indeed – the deil fee awa’ wi’ a’ the Hieland Mac Skirmishes atween Cape Wrath and the Links o’ Forth. They are no worthy yae decent burgess o’ Dumfries that tak’s doon his shutters in the mornin’ and counts up his bawbees in the even.’
So as often as Elsie offended her patroness and did the thing she ought not, it was by this name of obloquy that Mistress Comline called her.
‘Here, MacSkirmish – do ye caa’ theae pitaties scrapti? There is dirt eneuch on them to fyle Nith Water for a month. But what can yin expeck frae the dochter o’ a wild Hieland reiver. Tak’ your wabs o’ claith and be travelling up the brae. Your grandfaither, the auld miser, and his familiar, the daft man, will be prood to see ye, I dare say, since this decent woman’s law-abidin’ hoose is no guid eneuch for MacSkirmishes and the likes o’ them!’
Words such as these were mostly spoken after the wilfum maid had taken her own way and gone to visit her grandfather in the cot at the head of the Long Wood. For to do him justice the old miser was unweariedly kind to Elsie, and the maid’s heart was often wae for the lonely man weaving by his lone in the half-darkness where the great beams of the loom almost blocked the light out of the narrow cottage windows.
Mostly Daft Jeremy would vanish at her approach, though sometimes he would squat on the hearth looking at her for hours together through his dumb, sullen glooms, as if he feared that she came to carry away something that of right belonged to him. He had a flute whereon he blew strains that are not of this earth, yet which had a certain harmony and rhythm in them too, like the ‘chanties’ of demons that stoke the fires of hell.
These things Elsie did because (as she told herself) ‘blood is thicker than water.’ And also, perhaps, because Breckonside Wood is a long wood and Breckonside Brae a long brae, and there were many chances that one Will McQueen, the Provost’s son, late dux of the Grammar School and Elsie’s most constant admirer, would meet her under its shades, as it might be, by accident, and convoy her home again in the gloaming.
It chanced, late one Saturday afternoon, when the August fields stood almost ripe to the harvest (for it had been an early year on Nithside), that Elsie took her way slowly up the Lang Wood to see her grandfather. Daft Jeremy had brought the message in the morning, and her guardian had noted with surprise that he looked ‘mair spruce than ordinar’.’
‘Are ye to be marriet Jeremy?’ Mistress Comline had asked over the counter. She was in good humour, having just completed a keenly contested bargain to her satisfaction.
‘Aye,’ cried Jeremy, executing a double shuffle on the shop floor, ‘and se, Mistress, I hae bocht a bonny fiddle to dance to at the wedding!’
And sure enough, the daft creature took a fiddle and bow out of a brown paper parcel under his arm, and jigged uncouthy round to the sound of his own music till the hastily angered huxter ordered him out of the shop.
‘And sure as daith,’ said Mistress Comline, retailing the matter to her own particular gossip, ‘the craitu gaed doon the Vennel, bowin’ on his fiddle, and lauchin’ fit to raise the hair aff your crown!’
Now this good benefactress of Elsie’s, though kindly of intent and of a heart that was sound as a bell, had sundry tempers of her own which were most liable to take her on Saturdays. The perversity of ‘thae Dumfries bodies’ who, with the whole week wherein to do business, would persist in putting off till they ‘cam’ the nearest to breakin’ the Lord’s day, just to buy a pennyworth o’ preens or a double yaird o’ valenceens to trim their Sunday braws,’ spoiled her temper on the seventh day of the week. It is small wonder, then, that Elsie gladly snatched at the chance which fortune and Daft Jeremy offered her of escaping from the rigours of Mrs. Comline into the caller aisles of the Lang Wood, to say nothing of the chance that – well, that she might meet with company there more to a young maid’s mind than caffering guidwives cheapening wincey and paduasoi.
But it so chanced that Master Will McQueen had also come across the Higher Power that afternoon, and, less fortunate than his sweetheart, was left without excuse for taking an airing in the Lang Wood. His father, either ill-satisfied with his ordinary diligence or suspecting that love-making was in the young man’s mind, set him early in the day to the long labour of re-marking and checking all the goods in the shop on a brand new system of his own. Whereat Master Will chafed and fumed, bit his lip, dabbed viciously at the paper with his quill, cursing his father and the fates that bound him untimeously to his desk, when, as had been intimated to him, a certain girlish figure would be walking slowly (and it might be expectantly) under the hazel boughs of the Lang Wood.
So it chanced that, in spite of many backward glances over her shoulder, Elsie found herself still solitary, surmounting the Green Brae, at the top of which stood the cot-house of Breckonside, with its ‘pew’ of blue reek going quietly up from the kitchen chimney. She walked the last step of the way quickly, for she was angered with Will. What business had he to keep her waiting on him? Not that she cared – it was not likely that she would care – no, indeed, not in the smallest degree likely.
Still, as she came a little nearer to her destination, and heard the weird wail of the witless man’s fiddle within, which suddenly ceased in the middle of a bar, Elsie Kinmont owned to herself that it would have been indeed a comforting thought, if, while she was inside, she could have known that Will McQueen was biting his finger-nails with impatience behind the drystone dyke at the loaning foot.
However, it was not to be on this occasion. There was no tall form, clad in blue from top to toe, to be seen hastening up the road across which the slant evening shadows were creeping like checker-work on a plaid. So drawing a long breath, and resolving in her heart to stay as short a time as possible, Elsie set foot on the clean blue flagstone of the doorstep. Perhaps by the time she came out Master Will would be there – not that she would speak to him. She would show him that he could not behave to her after this fashion with impugnity. She did not care what excuse he might have.
Standing on the doorstep she listened. It was strange, she thought, that she did not hear the click of her grandfather’s shuttle.
She had never come that way before on any working day from dawn to dark, that she had not heard the steady wheeze of the loom and the click-clack which told that the miser was at his endless task.
But now a curiously uneasy silence brooded over the cot, and with a sudden throb of the heart, Elsie realised that she was alone, and that Will and the heartsome town were a very long way off indeed.
But she could not turn back now. She tapped every so lightly, telling herself that if it was not answered, she would turn and run straight home again. But almost ere the first faint rap had fallen on the blistered blue paint, the door opened and the face of Daft Jeremy appeared in the opening. He held his fiddle in one hand and with the other he beckoned the girl confidentially within.
Even then she would have turned and fled, but something in the ‘naiteral’s’ eye held her, something bright and living and daunting. She stepped over the doorstep quickly and daintily, as indeed she did all things.
‘Where is my grandfather?’ she said.
The ‘innocent’ jerked his elbow in the direction of the ‘ben’ room, where stood the loom at which the miser had worked so many years.
‘Is he at work? I do not hear him,’ said Elsie, making as if she would pass. But Daft Jeremy stretched out his great hairy paw between her and the door, and a sudden spasm of anger crossed his features. The next moment it had passed, and he grinned in her face with loutish cunning.
‘Wheest,’ he said, holding up his finger, ‘ye maunna disturb him – he’s makkin’ his wull! Thoosands and thoosands of pounds – you an’ me are to be his heirs. He wadna trust thae laywer bodies; na, na – they wad hae pitten it by puir Jeremy. Jeremy that made it a’ for the Laird – Jeremy that watched ahint dykes or amang the trees o’ the Lang Wood mony a drear winter’s nicht – Jeremy that struck the stroke and howkit the hole! Wha should hae the siller – a’ the bonny gowden guineas that him and me countit on this table, if it werena Jeremy? And you, my bonny young lamb, ye shall hae them too. For this is to be oor marriage nicht, yours and mine!’
With a gasp of fear Elsie rose from the seat and strove to reach the door of the inner room.
‘I will go to my grandfather; I must see him,’ she said, breathlessly. ‘Let me pass!’
But Daft Jeremy, with the strange black glitter of madness in his eye, stood between her and the latch of the door.
Then quite suddenly Elsie lost her presence of mind.
‘Grandfather! Grandfather!’ she cried aloud. ‘Come I want you!’
And with her little hand she pushed against the breast of the maniac. But he set her aside as one brushes a moth away, with one hand, and passing the other round her shoulders covered her mouth tightly.
‘Did I no tell you to be quiet,’ he hissed in her ear.’ Do as I bid ye, then. The Laird is no to be disturbit at his work!’
Then the dreadful thought came to Elsie that she was trapped and at the mercy of this wild beast. But with the thought came the calmness of resolve. There was nothing for it but to humour him till, as was likely, Will McQueen would arrive, or her benefactress send in search of her.
After watching Elsie suspiciously a while, the man-wanting wit took up his fiddle and began to play, if that could be called playing which contained scarcely a strain of mortal music. Only here and there the lit of an air emerged, or suggestions of reels and strathspeys, songs and quicksteps; but all hopeless and weariful like music played by demons in the Place of Ill to taunt the damned with the ghosts of happy memories.
And there, in the deepening gloaming, mercifully long and clear, the girl sat and nodded approval, listening for a footfall without, or a stir in the room within which her grandfather sat, if the madman spoke truth, drawing up his will.
Suddenly Daft Jeremay threw down the fiddle.
‘What am I thinkin’ on,’ he cried, ‘ye’ll no had had your ‘fower hours,’ bonny lassie! Bide ye here till I fetch a peat of twa frae t he hoose-end.’
Hope dawned anew in Elsie’s heart. She smiled brightly upon him.
‘I will get down the tea-caddy,’ she said, and looked along the mantelpiece for it. But again the angry, threatening look flashed across the maniacs face.
‘Na, na, bide ye where ye are, lassie. In the hooose o’ Breckonside guid bairs do as they are bid. What’s in the tea-caddy is no yours yet. It belongs to Jeremy – and him.
He pointed to the shut door of the silent ‘ben’ room with his finger.
After standing in this attitude awhile he opened the outer door, and, going out, closed it behind him again. Elsie heard the click of the lock. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, she ran to the ‘ben’ room and lifted the latch. The door was fast.
‘Grandfather – open – open – quick! It’s me, your Elsie, you ain Elsie!’
But there was no answering movement within. No reply came from the loom, only from the gable-end she could hear the noise of peats flung rudely into a leathern ‘wecht,’ and the senseless crooning of Daft Jeremy as he went about his work.
However, she noticed that a ray of light streamed through a crack, and kneeling down Elsie perceived her grandfather sitting at his loom. His brow was bent forward upon the beam, and between his hunched shoulders something showed black against the red western sunset. It seemed in shape like the haft of a knife.
The girl kept her reason as she gazed. Perhaps the fighting stock from which, on her father’s side she came, helped her in her hour of need.
She heard the murderer (as she did not doubt that he was) returning. He crooned a weariful song as he fitted the key into the lock. Then she prayed as she had never prayed before for Will to come and save her. Yet no, she thought with fear of what the madman might do to Will, falling up on him unarmed and unsuspecting. She saw no help, unless it should come directly from God.
But all the same she rose mechanically and made up the fire to boil the kettle. And as she went about the house Daft Jeremy followed her with his eyes greedily.
‘After a’ ye are a bonny lassie,’ he said; ‘you and me will do fine yet. We will be rich and ride in our carriage. Yon man doon the hoose wadna gie me the siller that was my richt. He denied me a single pound note to buy a fiddle – me that brucht it to him purse by purse – a’ except the shagreen ane that was lost.’
Then, dazed and affrighted, the girl sat shuddering while Jeremy with laughter and slapping of thigh, reeled off the terrible tale of how his master and he had made a murder trap of the Long Wood, carefully selecting their victims, marking them down beforehand, drovers from Ireland and the Shire, unknown English men riding to other distant markets. He related how Laird Kinmont had bidden him spring upon them unawares in the dark – how their strength was of no avail in his hands, and how the murderous pair had brought goods and gear home to the white cot-house on the braeface of Breckonside.
‘And yet, after a’ that, he refused me a pound note to buy a fiddle to play a spring on at my own weddin’!’ he concluded, looking at the closed door of the weaving-room with a dark and threatening brow.
Then, as if a thought had suddenly stung him, he took from a corner cupboard a pair of pistols, primed them and laid them on the table before him. Then he nodded to Elsie.
‘Dance!’ he cried, with sudden vehemence,’ ‘dance, ye lazy hizzie. Ye shall gang the same road as your gran’daddy if ye cross Daft Jeremy. Do ye think to lichtly me that am to be your wedded husband. Dance, missie, and I will play ye the bonny music!’
And there, on the blue whinstone flags of the cottage floor, Elsie Kinmont danced for her life, hour after hour as the shadows deepened and the shaft of light ceased from the crack in the door of the ‘ben’ room – the room which contained she knew not what of strange and terrible – her dead grandfather for one thing with the haft of a knife sticking in his back.
And ever as the maniac tired of one tune Elsie called for another, and danced on to the sound of the fiddle sweeping out through the wood in eerie gusts, and to the yet weirder accompaniment of the laughter of the madman.
When at last the moon rose, large and full, over the dark pines of the Lang Wood, Elsie was still dancing, pale and weary-footed, smiling with her lips but with despair in her heart. Then all at once, suddenly dropping his fiddle, the maniac cried, ‘Sing! Am I to do all the work?’
And Elsie, with her eyes on the long moonlit avenue, which led through the wood up to the cot-house, lifted up her voice and sang of the sadness that dwells in Yarrow. It was the first song that came into her mind: -
Oh Willie’s rare and Willie’s fair,
And Willies wondrous bonny,
And Willy hecht to mairry me,
Gin ever he married ony.
She put all her fear-stricken heart into the words. They seemed to leap out on the night with a tragic appeal. And with a quick nerve-jerking hope Elsie saw a figure cross the loaning and vanish as if it ran from tree to tree. Life stirred within her when she had counted herself as good as dead, and she sang ever the louder. The mad murderer held up his hand to stop her. His quick ear, or some suspicious instinct, had caught a sound without. He drew a sheath-knife from his pocket and opened it with a snap. ‘This will be quieter than a pistol,’ he said. Then going on tiptoe he slipped silently to the door. She could hear him breathing behind it. The next moment it was open and he was out. Elsie snatched the loaded pistols he had left on the table before him and pursued after. He would kill Willie – that was what was in her thought. She was sure it was he. She cried out to warn him.
About the house came the panting chase. It was indeed Willie McQueen, who ran, unarmed and helpless, scarce a dozen steps from the uplifted knife of the slayer.
‘Into the house, Willie!’ she cried, stepping down from the threshold to let him pass. There was no time for thought. Elsie thrust one of the pistol barrels against the pursuer’s chest. Without intention she pressed the trigger, and the next moment, with a terrible scream of agony, Daft Jeremy fell forward, making a clang of steel on the whinstone of the doorstep.
Then, leaving the dead man with his forehead cold upon his weaver’s beam, and the dying murderer lying where he had fallen across the threshold of the cot-house of Breckonside, the pair of young folks fled down the avenue of the wood, half crazed with the multiplied terrors of the night.
And as they ran hand in hand, Elsie said pantingly and in agony of soul,’ Oh, Willie, Willie, I hae killed a man!’
Then, as they reached the lights of the Brig-End, she added, ‘But God will forgive me, for I did it to save you, Willie!’
In the days which followed the cot-house of Breckonside was razed stone from stone by the infuriated people. The miser’s ill-gotten hoards were handed over to the officers of the law, and all the murderous traffic exposed by which Laird Kinmont had so long used the madman as his instrument to gather in his spoils.
The two bodies even were refused Christian burial, being thrown as they were found in a pit at the gable-end of the fatal ruins. Even the road itself was carried another way, so great was the horror folk had of passing the graves of the weaver laird and his henchman, Daft Jeremy, the murderers of Lang Wood.
As for Willie and Elsie, no long time passed before they crossed the sea together, that the disgrace of the dead might not cling to their children after them. And with them went Mistress Margaret Comline, who settled up her business in Dumfries, with the intent that (as she declared) ‘she might be spared to guide the footsteps o’ twa foolish young folks into the paths o' peace and pleasantness.'
But, even in a foreign land and among a fremit folk, Willie and Eslie never speak of the night when she danced for her own life, and slew a man to save her sweetheart’s, under the pines of the Lang Wood of Breckonside.
And that (concluded Silver Sand), when you come to think of it, is a thing little to be wondered at.
First published in 1901 in 'The Graphic Magazine' as a Christmas story, the novel Deep Moat Grange (1908) developed from it.