THE GREAT RAIN.
Gavin passed on through Windyghoul, thinking in his frenzy that he still heard the trap. In a rain that came down like iron rods every other sound was beaten dead. He slipped, and before he could regain his feet the dog bit him. To protect himself from dikes and trees and other horrors of the darkness he held his arm before him, but soon it was driven to his side. Wet whips cut his brow so that he had to protect it with his hands, until it had to bear the lash again, for they would not. Now he had forced up his knees, and would have succumbed but for a dread of being pinned to the earth. This fight between the man and the rain went on all night, and long before it ended the man was past the power of thinking.
In the ringing of the ten o’clock bell Gavin had lived the seventh part of a man’s natural life. Only action was required of him. That accomplished, his mind had begun to work again, when suddenly the loss of Babbie stopped it, as we may put out a fire with a great coal. The last thing he had reflected about was a dogcart in motion, and, consequently, this idea clung to him. His church, his mother, were lost knowledge of, but still he seemed to hear the trap in front.
The rain increased in violence, appalling even those who heard it from under cover. However rain may storm, though it be an army of archers battering roofs and windows, it is only terrifying when the noise swells every instant. In those hours of darkness it again and again grew in force and doubled its fury, and was louder, louder, and louder, until its next attack was to be more than men and women could listen to. They held each other’s hands and stood waiting. Then abruptly it abated, and people could speak. I believe a rain that became heavier every second for ten minutes would drive many listeners mad. Gavin was in it on a night that tried us repeatedly for quite half that time.
By and by even the vision of Babbie in the dogcart was blotted out. If nothing had taken its place, he would not have gone on probably; and had he turned back objectless, his strength would have succumbed to the rain. Now he saw Babbie and Rintoul being married by a minister who was himself, and there was a fair company looking on, and always when he was on the point of shouting to himself, whom he could see clearly, that this woman was already married, the rain obscured his words and the light went out. Presently the ceremony began again, always to stop at the same point. He saw it in the lightning-flash that had startled the hill. It gave him courage to fight his way onward, because he thought he must be heard if he could draw nearer to the company.
A regiment of cavalry began to trouble him. He heard it advancing from the Spittal, but was not dismayed, for it was, as yet, far distant. The horsemen came thundering on, filling the whole glen of Quharity. Now he knew that they had been sent out to ride him down. He paused in dread, until they had swept past him. They came back to look for him, riding more furiously than ever, and always missed him, yet his fears of the next time were not lessened. They were only the rain.
All through the night the dog followed him. He would forget it for a time, and then it would be so close that he could see it dimly. He never heard it bark, but it snapped at him, and a grin had become the expression of its face. He stoned it, he even flung himself at it, he addressed it in caressing tones, and always with the result that it disappeared, to come back presently.
He found himself walking in a lake, and now even the instinct of self-preservation must have been flickering, for he waded on, rejoicing merely in getting rid of the dog. Something in the water rose and struck him. Instead of stupefying him, the blow brought him to his senses, and he struggled for his life. The ground slipped beneath his feet many times, but at last he was out of the water. That he was out in a flood he did not realize; yet he now acted like one in full possession of his faculties. When his feet sank in water, he drew back; and many times he sought shelter behind banks and rocks, first testing their firmness with his hands. Once a torrent of stones, earth, and heather carried him down a hillside until he struck against a tree. He twined his arms round it, and had just done so when it fell with him. After that, when he touched trees growing in water, he fled from them, thus probably saving himself from death.
What he heard now might have been the roll and crack of the thunder. It sounded in his ear like nothing else. But it was really something that swept down the hill in roaring spouts of water, and it passed on both sides of him so that at one moment, had he paused, it would have crashed into him, and at another he was only saved by stopping. He felt that the struggle in the dark was to go on till the crack of doom.
Then he cast himself upon the ground. It moved beneath him like some great animal, and he rose and stole away from it. Several times did this happen. The stones against which his feet struck seemed to acquire life from his touch. So strong had he become, or so weak all other things, that whatever clump he laid hands on by which to pull himself out of the water was at once rooted up.
The daylight would not come. He longed passionately for it. He tried to remember what it was like, and could not; he had been blind so long. It was away in front somewhere, and he was struggling to overtake it. He expected to see it from a dark place, when he would rush forward to bathe his arms in it, and then the elements that were searching the world for him would see him and he would perish. But death did not seem too great a penalty to pay for light.
And at last day did come back, gray and drear. He saw suddenly once more. I think he must have been wandering the glen with his eyes shut, as one does shut them involuntarily against the hidden dangers of black night. How different was daylight from what he had expected! He looked, and then shut his dazed eyes again, for the darkness was less horrible than the day. Had he indeed seen, or only dreamed that he saw? Once more he looked to see what the world was like; and the sight that met his eyes was so mournful that he who had fought through the long night now sank hopeless and helpless among the heather. The dog was not far away, and it, too, lost heart. Gavin held out his hand, and Snap crept timidly toward him. He unloosened his coat, and the dog nestled against him, cowed and shivering, hiding its head from the day. Thus they lay, and the rain beat upon them.
WHILE THE TEN O’CLOCK BELL WAS RINGING.
In the square and wynds — weavers in groups:
“No, no, Davit, Mr. Dishart hadna felt the blow the piper gave him till he ascended the pulpit to conduct the prayer-meeting for rain, and then he fainted awa. Tammas Whamond and Peter Tosh carried him to the Session-house. Ay, an awful scene.”
“How did the minister no come to the meeting? I wonder how you could expect it, Snecky, and his mother taen so suddenly ill; he’s at her bedside, but the doctor has little hope.”
“This is what has occurred, Tailor: Mr. Dishart never got the length of the pulpit. He fell in a swound on the vestry floor. What caused it? Oh, nothing but the heat. Thrums is so dry that one spark would set it in a blaze.”
“I canna get at the richts o’ what keeped him frae the meeting, Femie, but it had something to do wi’ an Egyptian on the hill. Very like he had been trying to stop the gypsy marriage there. I gaed to the manse to speir at Jean what was wrang, but I’m thinking I telled her mair than she could tell me.”
“Man, man, Andrew, the wite o’t lies wi’ Peter Tosh. He thocht we was to hae sic a terrible rain that he implored the minister no to pray for it, and so angry was Mr. Dishart that he ordered the whole Session out o’ the kirk. I saw them in Couthie’s close, and michty dour they looked.”
“Yes, as sure as death, Tammas Whamond locked the kirk-door in Mr. Dishart’s face.”
“I’m a’ shaking! And small wonder, Marget, when I’ve heard this minute that Mr. Dishart’s been struck by lichtning while looking for Rob Dow. He’s no killed, but, woe’s me! they say he’ll never preach again.”
“Nothing o’ the kind. It was Rob that the lichtning struck dead in the doctor’s machine. The horse wasna touched; it came tearing down the Roods wi’ the corpse sitting in the machine like a living man.”
“What are you listening to, woman? Is it to a dog barking? I’ve heard it this while, but it’s far awa.”
In the manse kitchen:
“Jean, did you not hear me ring? I want you to — Why are you staring out at the window, Jean?”
“I — I was just hearkening to the ten o’clock bell, ma’am.”
“I never saw you doing nothing before! Put the heater in the fire, Jean. I want to iron the minister’s neckcloths. The prayer-meeting is long in coming out, is it not?”
“The — the drouth, ma’am, has been so cruel hard.”
“And, to my shame, I am so comfortable that I almost forgot how others are suffering. But my son never forgets, Jean. You are not crying, are you?”
“Bring the iron to the parlor, then. And if the minis — Why did you start, Jean? I only heard a dog barking.”
“I thocht, ma’am — at first I thocht it was Mr. Dishart opening the door. Ay, it’s just a dog; some gypsy dog on the hill, I’m thinking, for sound would carry far the nicht.”
“Even you, Jean, are nervous at nights, I see, if there is no man in the house. We shall hear no more distant dogs barking, I warrant, when the minister comes home.”
“When he comes home, ma’am.”
On the middle of a hill — a man and a woman:
“Courage, beloved; we are nearly there.”
“But, Gavin, I cannot see the encampment.”
“The night is too dark.”
“But the gypsy fires?”
“They are in the Toad’s-hole.”
“Listen to that dog barking.”
“There are several dogs at the encampment, Babbie.”
“There is one behind us. See, there it is!”
“I have driven it away, dear. You are trembling.”
“What we are doing frightens me, Gavin. It is at your heels again!”
“It seems to know you.”
“Oh, Gavin, it is Lord Rintoul’s collie Snap. It will bite you.”
“No, I have driven it back again. Probably the earl is following us.”
“Gavin, I cannot go on with this.”
“Leave me, dear, and save yourself.”
“Lean on me, Babbie.”
“Oh, Gavin, is there no way but this?”
“No sure way.”
“Even though we are married to-night — —”
“We shall be married in five minutes, and then, whatever befall, he cannot have you.”
“I will take you straight to the manse, to my mother.”
“Were it not for that dog, I should think we were alone on the hill.”
“But we are not. See, there are the gypsy fires.”
On the west side of the hill — two figures:
“Tammas, Tammas Whamond, I’ve lost you. Should we gang to the manse down the fields?”
“What are you listening for?”
“I heard a dog barking.”
“Only a gypsy dog, Tammas, barking at the coming storm.”
“The gypsy dogs are all tied up, and this one’s atween us and the Toad’s-hole. What was that?”
“It was nothing but the rubbing of the branches in the cemetery on ane another. It’s said, trees mak’ that fearsome sound when they’re terrified.”
“It was a dog barking at somebody that’s stoning it. I ken that sound, Hendry Munn.”
“May I die the death, Tammas Whamond, if a great drap o’ rain didna strike me the now, and I swear it was warm. I’m for running hame.”
“I’m for seeing who drove awa that dog. Come back wi’ me, Hendry.”
“I winna. There’s no a soul on the hill but you and me and thae daffing and drinking gypsies. How do you no answer me, Tammas? Hie, Tammas Whamond, whaur are you? He’s gone! Ay, then I’ll mak’ tracks hame.”
In the broom — a dogcart:
“Do you see nothing yet, McKenzie?”
“Scarce the broom at my knees, Rintoul. There is not a light on the hill.”
“McKenzie, can that schoolmaster have deceived us?”
“It is probable.”
“Urge on the horse, however. There is a road through the broom, I know. Have we stuck again?”
“Rintoul, she is not here. I promised to help you to bring her back to the Spittal before this escapade became known, but we have failed to find her. If she is to be saved, it must be by herself. I daresay she has returned already. Let me turn the horse’s head. There is a storm brewing.”
“I will search this gypsy encampment first, if it is on the hill. Hark! that was a dog’s bark. Yes, it is Snap; but he would not bark at nothing. Why do you look behind you so often, McKenzie?”
“For some time, Rintoul, it has seemed to me that we are being followed. Listen!”
“I hear nothing. At last, McKenzie, at last, we are out of the broom.”
“And as I live, Rintoul, I see the gypsy lights!”
It might have been a lantern that was flashed across the hill. Then all that part of the world went suddenly on fire. Everything was horribly distinct in that white light. The firs of Caddam were so near that it seemed to have arrested them in a silent march upon the hill. The grass would not hide a pebble. The ground was scored with shadows of men and things. Twice the light flickered and recovered itself. A red serpent shot across it, and then again black night fell.
The hill had been illumined thus for nearly half a minute. During that time not even a dog stirred. The shadows of human beings lay on the ground as motionless as logs. What had been revealed seemed less a gypsy marriage than a picture. Or was it that during the ceremony every person on the hill had been turned into stone? The gypsy king, with his arm upraised, had not had time to let it fall. The men and women behind him had their mouths open, as if struck when on the point of calling out. Lord Rintoul had risen in the dogcart and was leaning forward. One of McKenzie’s feet was on the shaft. The man crouching in the dogcart’s wake had flung up his hands to protect his face. The precentor, his neck outstretched, had a hand on each knee. All eyes were fixed, as in the death glare, on Gavin and Babbie, who stood before the king, their hands clasped over the tongs. Fear was petrified on the woman’s face, determination on the man’s.
They were all released by the crack of the thunder, but for another moment none could have swaggered.
“That was Lord Rintoul in the dogcart,” Babbie whispered, drawing in her breath.
“Yes, dear,” Gavin answered resolutely, “and now is the time for me to have my first and last talk with him. Remain here, Babbie. Do not move till I come back.”
“But, Gavin, he has seen. I fear him still.”
“He cannot touch you now, Babbie. You are my wife.”
In the vivid light Gavin had thought the dogcart much nearer than it was. He called Lord Rintoul’s name, but got no answer. There were shouts behind, gypsies running from the coming rain, dogs whining, but silence in front. The minister moved on some paces. Away to the left he heard voices --
“Who was the man, McKenzie?”
“My lord, I have lost sight of you. This is not the way to the camp.”
“Tell me, McKenzie, that you did not see what I saw.”
“Rintoul, I beseech you to turn back. We are too late.”
“We are not too late.”
Gavin broke through the darkness between them and him, but they were gone. He called to them, and stopped to listen to their feet.
“Is that you, Gavin?” Babbie asked just then.
For reply, the man who had crept up to her clapped his hand upon her mouth. Only the beginning of a scream escaped from her. A strong arm drove her quickly southward.
Gavin heard her cry, and ran back to the encampment. Babbie was gone. None of the gypsies had seen her since the darkness came back. He rushed hither and thither with a torch that only showed his distracted face to others. He flung up his arms in appeal for another moment of light; then he heard Babbie scream again, and this time it was from a distance. He dashed after her; he heard a trap speeding down the green sward through the broom.
Lord Rintoul had kidnapped Babbie. Gavin had no other thought as he ran after the dogcart from which the cry had come. The earl’s dog followed him, snapping at his heels. The rain began.
LEADING SWIFTLY TO THE APPALLING MARRIAGE.
The little minister bowed his head in assent when Babbie’s cry, “Oh, Gavin, do you?” leapt in front of her unselfish wish that he should care for her no more.
“But that matters very little now,” he said.
She was his to do with as he willed; and, perhaps, the joy of knowing herself loved still, begot a wild hope that he would refuse to give her up. If so, these words laid it low, but even the sentence they passed upon her could not kill the self-respect that would be hers henceforth. “That matters very little now,” the man said, but to the woman it seemed to matter more than anything else in the world.
Throughout the remainder of this interview until the end came, Gavin never faltered. His duty and hers lay so plainly before him that there could be no straying from it. Did Babbie think him strangely calm? At the Glen Quharity gathering I once saw Rob Angus lift a boulder with such apparent ease that its weight was discredited, until the cry arose that the effort had dislocated his arm. Perhaps Gavin’s quietness deceived the Egyptian similarly. Had he stamped, she might have understood better what he suffered, standing there on the hot embers of his passion.
“We must try to make amends now,” he said gravely, “for the wrong we have done.”
“The wrong I have done,” she said, correcting him. “You will make it harder for me if you blame yourself. How vile I was in those days!”
“Those days,” she called them, they seemed so far away.
“Do not cry, Babbie,” Gavin replied, gently. “He knew what you were, and why, and He pities you. ‘For His anger endureth but a moment: in His favor is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.’”
“Not to me.”
“Yes, to you,” he answered. “Babbie, you will return to the Spittal now, and tell Lord Rintoul everything.”
“If you wish it.”
“Not because I wish it, but because it is right. He must be told that you do not love him.”
“I never pretended to him that I did,” Babbie said, looking up. “Oh,” she added, with emphasis, “he knows that. He thinks me incapable of caring for any one.”
“And that is why he must be told of me,” Gavin replied. “You are no longer the woman you were, Babbie, and you know it, and I know it, but he does not know it. He shall know it before he decides whether he is to marry you.”
Babbie looked at Gavin, and wondered he did not see that this decision lay with him.
“Nevertheless,” she said, “the wedding will take place to-morrow; if it did not, Lord Rintoul would be the scorn of his friends.”
“If it does,” the minister answered, “he will be the scorn of himself. Babbie, there is a chance.”
“There is no chance,” she told him. “I shall be back at the Spittal without any one’s knowing of my absence, and when I begin to tell him of you, he will tremble, lest it means my refusal to marry him; when he knows it does not, he will wonder only why I told him anything.”
“He will ask you to take time — —”
“No, he will ask me to put on my wedding-dress. You must not think anything else possible.”
“So be it, then,” Gavin said firmly.
“Yes, it will be better so,” Babbie answered, and then, seeing him misunderstand her meaning, exclaimed reproachfully, “I was not thinking of myself. In the time to come, whatever be my lot, I shall have the one consolation, that this is best for you. Think of your mother.”
“She will love you,” Gavin said, “when I tell her of you.”
“Yes,” said Babbie, wringing her hands; “she will almost love me, but for what? For not marrying you. That is the only reason any one in Thrums will have for wishing me well.”
“No others,” Gavin answered, “will ever know why I remained unmarried.”
“Will you never marry?” Babbie asked, exultingly. “Ah!” she cried, ashamed, “but you must.”
Well, many a man and many a woman has made that vow in similar circumstances, and not all have kept it. But shall we who are old smile cynically at the brief and burning passion of the young? “The day,” you say, “will come when—” Good sir, hold your peace. Their agony was great and now is dead, and, maybe, they have forgotten where it lies buried; but dare you answer lightly when I ask you which of these things is saddest?
Babbie believed his “Never,” and, doubtless, thought no worse of him for it; but she saw no way of comforting him save by disparagement of herself.
“You must think of your congregation,” she said. “A minister with a gypsy wife — —”
“Would have knocked them about with a flail,” Gavin interposed, showing his teeth at the thought of the precentor, “until they did her reverence.”
She shook her head, and told him of her meeting with Micah Dow. It silenced him; not, however, on account of its pathos, as she thought, but because it interpreted the riddle of Rob’s behavior.
“Nevertheless,” he said ultimately, “my duty is not to do what is right in my people’s eyes, but what seems right in my own.”
Babbie had not heard him.
“I saw a face at the window just now,” she whispered, drawing closer to him.
“There was no face there; the very thought of Rob Dow raises him before you,” Gavin answered reassuringly, though Rob was nearer at that moment than either of them thought.
“I must go away at once,” she said, still with her eyes on the window. “No, no, you shall not come or stay with me; it is you who are in danger.”
“Do not fear for me.”
“I must, if you will not. Before you came in, did I not hear you speak of a meeting you had to attend to-night?”
“My pray—” His teeth met on the word; so abruptly did it conjure up the forgotten prayer-meeting that before the shock could reach his mind he stood motionless, listening for the bell. For one instant all that had taken place since he last heard it might have happened between two of its tinkles; Babbie passed from before him like a figure in a panorama, and he saw, instead, a congregation in their pews.
“What do you see?” Babbie cried in alarm, for he seemed to be gazing at the window.
“Only you,” he replied, himself again; “I am coming with you.”
“You must let me go alone,” she entreated; “if not for your own safety” — but it was only him she considered—”then for the sake of Lord Rintoul. Were you and I to be seen together now, his name and mine might suffer.”
It was an argument the minister could not answer save by putting his hands over his face; his distress made Babbie strong; she moved to the door, trying to smile.
“Go, Babbie!” Gavin said, controlling his voice, though it had been a smile more pitiful than her tears. “God has you in His keeping; it is not His will to give me this to bear for you.”
They were now in the garden.
“Do not think of me as unhappy,” she said; “it will be happiness to me to try to be all you would have me be.”
He ought to have corrected her. “All that God would have me be,” is what she should have said. But he only replied, “You will be a good woman, and none such can be altogether unhappy; God sees to that.”
He might have kissed her, and perhaps she thought so.
“I am — I am going now, dear,” she said, and came back a step because he did not answer; then she went on, and was out of his sight at three yards’ distance. Neither of them heard the approaching dogcart.
“You see, I am bearing it quite cheerfully,” she said. “I shall have everything a woman loves; do not grieve for me so much.”
Gavin dared not speak nor move. Never had he found life so hard; but he was fighting with the ignoble in himself, and winning. She opened the gate, and it might have been a signal to the dogcart to stop. They both heard a dog barking, and then the voice of Lord Rintoul:
“That is a light in the window. Jump down, McKenzie, and inquire.”
Gavin took one step nearer Babbie and stopped. He did not see how all her courage went from her, so that her knees yielded, and she held out her arms to him, but he heard a great sob and then his name.
“Gavin, I am afraid.”
Gavin understood now, and I say he would have been no man to leave her after that; only a moment was allowed him, and it was their last chance on earth. He took it. His arm went round his beloved, and he drew her away from Nanny’s.
McKenzie found both house and garden empty. “And yet,” he said, “I swear some one passed the window as we sighted it.”
“Waste no more time,” cried the impatient earl. “We must be very near the hill now. You will have to lead the horse, McKenzie, in this darkness; the dog may find the way through the broom for us.”
“The dog has run on,” McKenzie replied, now in an evil temper. “Who knows, it may be with her now? So we must feel our way cautiously; there is no call for capsizing the trap in our haste.” But there was call for haste if they were to reach the gypsy encampment before Gavin and Babbie were made man and wife over the tongs.
The Spittal dogcart rocked as it dragged its way through the broom. Rob Dow followed. The ten o’clock bell began to ring.
VARIOUS BODIES CONVERGING ON THE HILL.
It would be coming on for a quarter-past nine, and a misty night, when I reached the school-house, and I was so weary of mind and body that I sat down without taking off my bonnet. I had left the door open, and I remember listlessly watching the wind making a target of my candle, but never taking a sufficiently big breath to do more than frighten it. From this lethargy I was roused by the sound of wheels.
In the daytime our glen road leads to many parts, but in the night only to the doctor’s. Then the gallop of a horse makes farmers start up in bed and cry, “Who’s ill?” I went to my door and listened to the trap coming swiftly down the lonely glen, but I could not see it, for there was a trailing scarf of mist between the school-house and the road. Presently I heard the swish of the wheels in water, and so learned that they were crossing the ford to come to me. I had been unstrung by the events of the evening, and fear at once pressed thick upon me that this might be a sequel to them, as indeed it was.
While still out of sight the trap stopped, and I heard some one jump from it. Then came this conversation, as distinct as though it had been spoken into my ear:
“Can you see the school-house now, McKenzie?”
“I am groping for it, Rintoul. The mist seems to have made off with the path.”
“Where are you, McKenzie? I have lost sight of you.”
It was but a ribbon of mist, and as these words were spoken McKenzie broke through it. I saw him, though to him I was only a stone at my door.
“I have found the house, Rintoul,” he shouted, “and there is a light in it, so that the fellow has doubtless returned.”
“Then wait a moment for me.”
“Stay where you are, Rintoul, I entreat you, and leave him to me. He may recognize you.”
“No, no, McKenzie, I am sure he never saw me before. I insist on accompanying you.”
“Your excitement, Rintoul, will betray you. Let me go alone. I can question him without rousing his suspicions. Remember, she is only a gypsy to him.”
“He will learn nothing from me. I am quite calm now.”
“Rintoul, I warn you your manner will betray you, and to-morrow it will be roared through the countryside that your bride ran away from the Spittal in a gypsy dress, and had to be brought back by force.”
The altercation may have lasted another minute, but the suddenness with which I learned Babbie’s secret had left my ears incapable of learning more. I daresay the two men started when they found me at my door, but they did not remember, as few do remember who have the noisy day to forget it in, how far the voice carries in the night.
They came as suddenly on me as I on them, for though they had given unintentional notice of their approach, I had lost sight of the speakers in their amazing words. Only a moment did young McKenzie’s anxiety to be spokesman give me to regard Lord Rintoul. I saw that he was a thin man and tall, straight in the figure, but his head began to sink into his shoulders and not very steady on them. His teeth had grip of his under-lip, as if this was a method of controlling his agitation, and he was opening and shutting his hands restlessly. He had a dog with him which I was to meet again.
“Well met, Mr. Ogilvy,” said McKenzie, who knew me slightly, having once acted as judge at a cock-fight in the school-house. “We were afraid we should have to rouse you.”
“You will step inside?” I asked awkwardly, and while I spoke I was wondering how long it would be before the earl’s excitement broke out.
“It is not necessary,” McKenzie answered hurriedly. “My friend and I (this is Mr. McClure) have been caught in the mist without a lamp, and we thought you could perhaps favor us with one.”
“Unfortunately I have nothing of the kind,” I said, and the state of mind I was in is shown by my answering seriously.
“Then we must wish you a good-night and manage as best we can,” he said; and then before he could touch, with affected indifference, on the real object of their visit, the alarmed earl said angrily, “McKenzie, no more of this.”
“No more of this delay, do you mean, McClure?” asked McKenzie, and then, turning to me said, “By the way, Mr. Ogilvy, I think this is our second meeting to-night. I met you on the road a few hours ago with your wife. Or was it your daughter?”
“It was neither, Mr. McKenzie,” I answered, with the calmness of one not yet recovered from a shock. “It was a gypsy girl.”
“Where is she now?” cried Rintoul feverishly; but McKenzie, speaking loudly at the same time, tried to drown his interference as one obliterates writing by writing over it.
“A strange companion for a schoolmaster,” he said. “What became of her?”
“I left her near Caddam Wood,” I replied, “but she is probably not there now.”
“Ah, they are strange creatures, these gypsies!” he said, casting a warning look at the earl. “Now I wonder where she had been bound for.”
“There is a gypsy encampment on the hill,” I answered, though I cannot say why.
“She is there!” exclaimed Rintoul, and was done with me.
“I daresay,” McKenzie said indifferently. “However, it is nothing to us. Good-night, sir.”
The earl had started for the trap, but McKenzie’s salute reminded him of a forgotten courtesy, and, despite his agitation, he came back to apologize. I admired him for this. Then my thoughtlessness must needs mar all.
“Good-night, Mr. McKenzie,” I said. “Good-night, Lord Rintoul.”
I had addressed him by his real name. Never a turnip fell from a bumping, laden cart, and the driver more unconscious of it, than I that I had dropped that word. I re-entered the house, but had not reached my chair when McKenzie’s hand fell roughly on me, and I was swung round.
“Mr. Ogilvy,” he said, the more savagely I doubt not because his passions had been chained so long, “you know more than you would have us think. Beware, sir, of recognising that gypsy should you ever see her again in different attire. I advise you to have forgotten this night when you waken to-morrow morning.”
With a menacing gesture he left me, and I sank into a chair, glad to lose sight of the glowering eyes with which he had pinned me to the wall. I did not hear the trap cross the ford and renew its journey. When I looked out next, the night had fallen very dark, and the glen was so deathly in its drowsiness that I thought not even the cry of murder could tear its eyes open.
The earl and McKenzie would be some distance still from the hill when the office-bearers had scoured it in vain for their minister. The gypsies, now dancing round their fires to music that, on ordinary occasions, Lang Tammas would have stopped by using his fists to the glory of God, had seen no minister, they said, and disbelieved in the existence of the mysterious Egyptian.
“Liars they are to trade,” Spens declared to his companions, “but now and again they speak truth, like a standing clock, and I’m beginning to think the minister’s lassie was invented in the square.”
“Not so,” said the precentor, “for we saw her oursel’s a short year syne, and Hendry Munn there allows there’s townsfolk that hae passed her in the glen mair recently.”
“I only allowed,” Hendry said cautiously, “that some sic talk had shot up sudden-like in the town. Them that pretends they saw her says that she joukit quick out o’ sicht.”
“Ay, and there’s another quirk in that,” responded the suspicious precentor.
“I’se uphaud the minister’s sitting in the manse in his slippers by this time,” Hendry said.
“I’m willing,” replied Whamond, “to gang back and speir, or to search Caddam next; but let the matter drop I winna, though I ken you’re a’ awid to be hame now.”
“And naturally,” retorted Tosh, “for the nicht’s coming on as black as pick, and by the time we’re at Caddam we’ll no even see the trees.”
Toward Caddam, nevertheless, they advanced, hearing nothing but a distant wind and the whish of their legs in the broom.
“Whaur’s John Spens?” Hendry said suddenly.
They turned back and found Spens rooted to the ground, as a boy becomes motionless when he thinks he is within arm’s reach of a nest and the bird sitting on the eggs.
“What do you see, man?” Hendry whispered.
“As sure as death,” answered Spens, awe-struck, “I felt a drap o’ rain.”
“It’s no rain we’re here to look for,” said the precentor.
“Peter Tosh,” cried Spens, “it was a drap! Oh, Peter! how are you looking at me so queer, Peter, when you should be thanking the Lord for the promise that’s in that drap?”
“Come away,” Whamond said, impatiently; but Spens answered, “No till I’ve offered up a prayer for the promise that’s in that drap. Peter Tosh, you’ve forgotten to take off your bonnet.”
“Think twice, John Spens,” gasped Tosh, “afore you pray for rain this nicht.”
The others thought him crazy, but he went on, with a catch in his voice:
“I felt a drap o’ rain mysel’, just afore it came on dark so hurried, and my first impulse was to wish that I could carry that drap about wi’ me and look at it. But, John Spens, when I looked up I saw sic a change running ower the sky that I thocht hell had taen the place o’ heaven, and that there was waterspouts gathering therein for the drowning o’ the world.”
“There’s no water in hell,” the precentor said grimly.
“Genesis ix.,” said Spens, “verses 8 to 17. Ay, but, Peter, you’ve startled me, and I’m thinking we should be stepping hame. Is that a licht?”
“It’ll be in Nanny Webster’s,” Hendry said, after they had all regarded the light.
“I never heard that Nanny needed a candle to licht her to her bed,” the precentor muttered.
“She was awa to meet Sanders the day as he came out o’ the Tilliedrum gaol,” Spens remembered, “and I daresay the licht means they’re hame again.”
“It’s well kent—” began Hendry, and would have recalled his words.
“Hendry Munn,” cried the precentor, “if you hae minded onything that may help us, out wi’t.”
“I was just minding,” the kirk officer answered reluctantly, “that Nanny allows it’s Mr. Dishart that has been keeping her frae the poorhouse. You canna censure him for that, Tammas.”
“Can I no?” retorted Whamond. “What business has he to befriend a woman that belongs to another denomination? I’ll see to the bottom o’ that this nicht. Lads, follow me to Nanny’s, and dinna be surprised if we find baith the minister and the Egyptian there.”
They had not advanced many yards when Spens jumped to the side, crying, “Be wary, that’s no the wind; it’s a machine!”
Immediately the doctor’s dogcart was close to them, with Rob Dow for its only occupant. He was driving slowly, or Whamond could not have escaped the horse’s hoofs.
“Is that you, Rob Dow?” said the precentor sourly. “I tell you, you’ll be gaoled for stealing the doctor’s machine.”
“The Hielandman wasna muckle hurt, Rob,” Hendry said, more good-naturedly.
“I ken that,” replied Rob, scowling at the four of them. “What are you doing here on sic a nicht?”
“Do you see anything strange in the nicht, Rob?” Tosh asked apprehensively.
“It’s setting to rain,” Dow replied. “I dinna see it, but I feel it.”
“Ay,” said Tosh, eagerly, “but will it be a saft, cowdie sweet ding-on?”
“Let the heavens open if they will,” interposed Spens recklessly. “I would swap the drought for rain, though it comes down in a sheet as in the year twelve.”
“And like a sheet it’ll come,” replied Dow, “and the deil’ll blaw it about wi’ his biggest bellowses.”
Tosh shivered, but Whamond shook him roughly, saying --
“Keep your oaths to yoursel’, Rob Dow, and tell me, hae you seen Mr. Dishart?”
“I hinna,” Rob answered curtly, preparing to drive on.
“Nor the lassie they call the Egyptian?”
Rob leaped from the dogcart, crying, “What does that mean?”
“Hands off,” said the precentor, retreating from him. “It means that Mr. Dishart neglected the prayer-meeting this nicht to philander after that heathen woman.”
“We’re no sure o’t, Tammas,” remonstrated the kirk officer. Dow stood quite still. “I believe Rob kens it’s true,” Hendry added sadly, “or he would hae flown at your throat, Tammas Whamond, for saying these words.”
Even this did not rouse Dow.
“Rob doesna worship the minister as he used to do,” said Spens.
“And what for no?” cried the precentor. “Rob Dow, is it because you’ve found out about this woman?”
“You’re a pack o’ liars,” roared Rob, desperately, “and if you say again that ony wandering hussy has haud o’ the minister, I’ll let you see whether I can loup at throats.”
“You’ll swear by the Book,” asked Whamond, relentlessly, “that you’ve seen neither o’ them this nicht, nor them thegither at any time?”
“I so swear by the Book,” answered poor loyal Rob. “But what makes you look for Mr. Dishart here?” he demanded, with an uneasy look at the light in the mudhouse.
“Go hame,” replied the precentor, “and deliver up the machine you stole, and leave this Session to do its duty. John, we maun fathom the meaning o’ that licht.”
Dow started, and was probably at that moment within an ace of felling Whamond.
“I’ll come wi’ you,” he said, hunting in his mind for a better way of helping Gavin.
They were at Nanny’s garden, but in the darkness Whamond could not find the gate. Rob climbed the paling, and was at once lost sight of. Then they saw his head obscure the window. They did not, however, hear the groan that startled Babbie.
“There’s nobody there,” he said, coming back, “but Nanny and Sanders. You’ll mind Sanders was to be freed the day.”
“I’ll go in and see Sanders,” said Hendry, but the precentor pulled him back, saying, “You’ll do nothing o’ the kind, Hendry Munn; you’ll come awa wi’ me now to the manse.”
“It’s mair than me and Peter’ll do, then,” said Spens, who had been consulting with the other farmer. “We’re gaun as straucht hame as the darkness’ll let us.”
With few more words the Session parted, Spens and Tosh setting off for their farms, and Hendry accompanying the precentor. No one will ever know where Dow went. I can fancy him, however, returning to the wood, and there drawing rein. I can fancy his mind made up to watch the mudhouse until Gavin and the gypsy separated, and then pounce upon her. I daresay his whole plot could be condensed into a sentence, “If she’s got rid o’ this nicht, we may cheat the Session yet.” But this is mere surmise. All I know is that he waited near Nanny’s house, and by and by heard another trap coming up Windyghoul. That was just before the ten o’clock bell began to ring.
THE MEETING FOR RAIN.
Meanwhile the Auld Lichts were in church, waiting for their minister, and it was a full meeting, because nearly every well in Thrums had been scooped dry by anxious palms. Yet not all were there to ask God’s rain for themselves. Old Charles Yuill was in his pew, after dreaming thrice that he would break up with the drought; and Bell Christison had come, though her man lay dead at home, and she thought it could matter no more to her how things went in the world.
You, who do not love that little congregation, would have said that they were waiting placidly. But probably so simple a woman as Meggy Rattray could have deceived you into believing that because her eyes were downcast she did not notice who put the three-penny-bit in the plate. A few men were unaware that the bell was working overtime, most of them farmers with their eyes on the windows, but all the women at least were wondering. They knew better, however, than to bring their thoughts to their faces, and none sought to catch another’s eye. The men-folk looked heavily at their hats in the seats in front. Even when Hendry Munn, instead of marching to the pulpit with the big Bible in his hands, came as far as the plate and signed to Peter Tosh, elder, that he was wanted in the vestry, you could not have guessed how every woman there, except Bell Christison, wished she was Peter Tosh. Peter was so taken aback that he merely gaped at Hendry, until suddenly he knew that his five daughters were furious with him, when he dived for his hat and staggered to the vestry with his mouth open. His boots cheeped all the way, but no one looked up.
“I hadna noticed the minister was lang in coming,” Waster Lunny told me afterward, “but Elspeth noticed it, and with a quickness that baffles me she saw I was thinking o’ other things. So she let out her foot at me. I gae a low cough to let her ken I wasna sleeping, but in a minute out goes her foot again. Ay, syne I thocht I micht hae dropped my hanky into Snecky Hobart’s pew, but no, it was in my tails. Yet her hand was on the board, and she was working her fingers in a way that I kent meant she would like to shake me. Next I looked to see if I was sitting on her frock, the which tries a woman sair, but I wasna. ‘Does she want to change Bibles wi’ me?’ I wondered; ‘or is she sliding yont a peppermint to me?’ It was neither, so I edged as far frae her as I could gang. Weel, would you credit it, I saw her body coming nearer me inch by inch, though she was looking straucht afore her, till she was within kick o’ me, and then out again goes her foot. At that, dominie, I lost patience, and I whispered, fierce-like, ‘Keep your foot to yoursel’, you limmer!’ Ay, her intent, you see, was to waken me to what was gaen on, but I couldna be expected to ken that.”
In the vestry Hendry Munn was now holding counsel with three elders, of whom the chief was Lang Tammas.
“The laddie I sent to the manse,” Hendry said, “canna be back this five minutes, and the question is how we’re to fill up that time. I’ll ring no langer, for the bell has been in a passion ever since a quarter-past eight. It’s as sweer to clang past the quarter as a horse to gallop by its stable.”
“You could gang to your box and gie out a psalm, Tammas,” suggested John Spens.
“And would a psalm sung wi’ sic an object,” retorted the precentor, “mount higher, think you, than a bairn’s kite? I’ll insult the Almighty to screen no minister.”
“You’re screening him better by standing whaur you are,” said the imperturbable Hendry; “for as lang as you dinna show your face they’ll think it may be you that’s missing instead o’ Mr. Dishart.”
Indeed, Gavin’s appearance in church without the precentor would have been as surprising as Tammas’s without the minister. As certainly as the shutting of a money-box is followed by the turning of the key, did the precentor walk stiffly from the vestry to his box a toll of the bell in front of the minister. Tammas’s halfpenny rang in the plate as Gavin passed T’nowhead’s pew, and Gavin’s sixpence with the snapping-to of the precentor’s door. The two men might have been connected by a string that tightened at ten yards.
“The congregation ken me ower weel,” Tammas said, “to believe I would keep the Lord waiting.”
“And they are as sure o’ Mr. Dishart,” rejoined Spens, with spirit, though he feared the precentor on Sabbaths and at prayer-meetings. “You’re a hard man.”
“I speak the blunt truth,” Whamond answered.
“Ay,” said Spens, “and to tak’ credit for that may be like blawing that you’re ower honest to wear claethes.”
Hendry, who had gone to the door, returned now with the information that Mr. Dishart had left the manse two hours ago to pay visits, meaning to come to the prayer-meeting before he returned home.
“There’s a quirk in this, Hendry,” said Tosh. “Was it Mistress Dishart the laddie saw?”
“No,” Hendry replied. “It was Jean. She canna get to the meeting because the mistress is nervous in the manse by herself; and Jean didna like to tell her that he’s missing, for fear o’ alarming her. What are we to do now?”
“He’s an unfaithful shepherd,” cried the precentor, while Hendry again went out. “I see it written on the walls.”
“I dinna,” said Spens doggedly.
“Because,” retorted Tammas, “having eyes you see not.”
“Tammas, I aye thocht you was fond o’ Mr. Dishart.”
“If my right eye were to offend me,” answered the precentor, “I would pluck it out. I suppose you think, and baith o’ you farmers too, that there’s no necessity for praying for rain the nicht? You’ll be content, will ye, if Mr. Dishart just drops in to the kirk some day, accidental-like, and offers up a bit prayer?”
“As for the rain,” Spens said, triumphantly, “I wouldna wonder though it’s here afore the minister. You canna deny, Peter Tosh, that there’s been a smell o’ rain in the air this twa hours back.”
“John,” Peter said agitatedly, “dinna speak so confidently. I’ve kent it,” he whispered, “since the day turned; but it wants to tak’ us by surprise, lad, and so I’m no letting on.”
“See that you dinna make an idol o’ the rain,” thundered Whamond. “Your thochts is no wi’ Him, but wi’ the clouds; and whaur your thochts are, there will your prayers stick also.”
“If you saw my lambs,” Tosh began; and then, ashamed of himself, said, looking upward, “He holds the rain in the hollow of His hand.”
“And He’s closing His neive ticht on’t again,” said the precentor solemnly. “Hearken to the wind rising!”
“God help me!” cried Tosh, wringing his hands. “Is it fair, think you,” he said, passionately addressing the sky, “to show your wrath wi’ Mr. Dishart by ruining my neeps?”
“You were richt, Tammas Whamond,” Spens said, growing hard as he listened to the wind, “the sanctuary o’ the Lord has been profaned this nicht by him wha should be the chief pillar o’ the building.”
They were lowering brows that greeted Hendry when he returned to say that Mr. Dishart had been seen last on the hill with the Glen Quharity dominie.
“Some thinks,” said the kirk officer, “that he’s awa hunting for Rob Dow.”
“Nothing’ll excuse him,” replied Spens, “short o’ his having fallen over the quarry.”
Hendry’s was usually a blank face, but it must have looked troubled now, for Tosh was about to say, “Hendry, you’re keeping something back,” when the precentor said it before him.
“Wi’ that story o’ Mr. Dishart’s murder, no many hours auld yet,” the kirk officer replied evasively, “we should be wary o’ trusting gossip.”
“What hae you heard?”
“It’s through the town,” Hendry answered, “that a woman was wi’ the dominie.”
“A woman!” cried Tosh. “The woman there’s been sic talk about in connection wi’ the minister? Whaur are they now?”
“It’s no kent, but — the dominie was seen goin’ hame by himsel’.”
“Leaving the minister and her thegither!” cried the three men at once.
“Hendry Munn,” Tammas said sternly, “there’s mair about this; wha is the woman?”
“They are liars,” Hendry answered, and shut his mouth tight.
“Gie her a name, I say,” the precentor ordered, “or, as chief elder of this kirk, supported by mair than half o’ the Session, I command you to lift your hat and go.”
Hendry gave an appealing look to Tosh and Spens, but the precentor’s solemnity had cowed them.
“They say, then,” he answered sullenly, “that it’s the Egyptian. Yes, and I believe they ken.”
The two farmers drew back from this statement incredulously; but Tammas Whamond jumped at the kirk officer’s throat, and some who were in the church that night say they heard Hendry scream. Then the precentor’s fingers relaxed their grip, and he tottered into the middle of the room.
“Hendry,” he pleaded, holding out his arms pathetically, “tak’ back these words. Oh, man, have pity, and tak’ them back!”
But Hendry would not, and then Lang Tammas’s mouth worked convulsively, and he sobbed, crying, “Nobody kent it, but mair than mortal son, O God, I did love the lad!”
So seldom in a lifetime had any one seen into this man’s heart that Spens said, amazed:
“Tammas, Tammas Whamond, it’s no like you to break down.”
The rusty door of Whamond’s heart swung to.
“Who broke down?” he asked fiercely. “Let no member of this Session dare to break down till his work be done.”
“What work?” Tosh said uneasily. “We canna interfere.”
“I would rather resign,” Spens said, but shook when Whamond hurled these words at him:
“‘And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’”
“It mayna be true,” Hendry said eagerly.
“We’ll soon see.”
“He would gie her up,” said Tosh.
“Peter Tosh,” answered Whamond sternly, “I call upon you to dismiss the congregation.”
“Should we no rather haud the meeting oursel’s?”
“We have other work afore us,” replied the precentor.
“But what can I say?” Tosh asked nervously. “Should I offer up a prayer?”
“I warn you all,” broke in Hendry, “that though the congregation is sitting there quietly, they’ll be tigers for the meaning o’ this as soon as they’re in the street.”
“Let no ontruth be telled them,” said the precentor. “Peter Tosh, do your duty. John Spens, remain wi’ me.”
The church emptied silently, but a buzz of excitement arose outside. Many persons tried to enter the vestry, but were ordered away, and when Tosh joined his fellow-elders the people were collecting in animated groups in the square, or scattering through the wynds for news.
“And now,” said the precentor, “I call upon the three o’ you to come wi’ me. Hendry Munn, you gang first.”
“I maun bide ahint,” Hendry said, with a sudden fear, “to lock up the kirk.”
“I’ll lock up the kirk,” Whamond answered harshly.
“You maun gie me the keys, though,” entreated the kirk officer.
“I’ll take care o’ the keys,” said Whamond.
“I maun hae them,” Hendry said, “to open the kirk on Sabbath.”
The precentor locked the doors, and buttoned up the keys in his trousers pockets.
“Wha kens,” he said, in a voice of steel, “that the kirk’ll be open next Sabbath?”
“Hae some mercy on him, Tammas,” Spens implored. “He’s no twa-and-twenty.”
“Wha kens,” continued the precentor, “but that the next time this kirk is opened will be to preach it toom?”
“What road do we tak’?”
“The road to the hill, whaur he was seen last.”
STORY OF THE EGYPTIAN.
God gives us more than, were we not overbold, we should dare to ask for, and yet how often (perhaps after saying “Thank God” so curtly that it is only a form of swearing) we are suppliants again within the hour. Gavin was to be satisfied if he were told that no evil had befallen her he loved, and all the way between the school-house and Windyghoul Babbie craved for no more than Gavin’s life. Now they had got their desires; but do you think they were content?
The Egyptian had gone on her knees when she heard Gavin speak of her. It was her way of preventing herself from running to him. Then, when she thought him gone, he opened the door. She rose and shrank back, but first she had stepped toward him with a glad cry. His disappointed arms met on nothing.
“You, too, heard that I was dead?” he said, thinking her strangeness but grief too sharply turned to joy.
There were tears in the word with which she answered him, and he would have kissed her, but she defended her face with her hand.
“Babbie,” he asked, beginning to fear that he had not sounded her deepest woe, “why have you left me all this time? You are not glad to see me now?”
“I was glad,” she answered in a low voice, “to see you from the window, but I prayed to God not to let you see me.”
She even pulled away her hand when he would have taken it. “No, no, I am to tell you everything now, and then — —”
“Say that you love me first,” he broke in, when a sob checked her speaking.
“No,” she said, “I must tell you first what I have done, and then you will not ask me to say that. I am not a gypsy.”
“What of that?” cried Gavin. “It was not because you were a gypsy that I loved you.”
“That is the last time you will say you love me,” said Babbie. “Mr. Dishart, I am to be married to-morrow.”
She stopped, afraid to say more lest he should fall, but except that his arms twitched he did not move.
“I am to be married to Lord Rintoul,” she went on. “Now you know who I am.”
She turned from him, for his piercing eyes frightened her. Never again, she knew, would she see the love-light in them. He plucked himself from the spot where he had stood looking at her and walked to the window. When he wheeled round there was no anger on his face, only a pathetic wonder that he had been deceived so easily. It was at himself that he was smiling grimly rather than at her, and the change pained Babbie as no words could have hurt her. He sat down on a chair and waited for her to go on.
“Don’t look at me,” she said, “and I will tell you everything.” He dropped his eyes listlessly, and had he not asked her a question from time to time, she would have doubted whether he heard her.
“After all,” she said, “a gypsy dress is my birth-right, and so the Thrums people were scarcely wrong in calling me an Egyptian. It is a pity any one insisted on making me something different. I believe I could have been a good gypsy.”
“Who were your parents?” Gavin asked, without looking up.
“You ask that,” she said, “because you have a good mother. It is not a question that would occur to me. My mother — If she was bad, may not that be some excuse for me? Ah, but I have no wish to excuse myself. Have you seen a gypsy cart with a sort of hammock swung beneath it in which gypsy children are carried about the country? If there are no children, the pots and pans are stored in it. Unless the roads are rough it makes a comfortable cradle, and it was the only one I ever knew. Well, one day I suppose the road was rough, for I was capsized. I remember picking myself up after a little and running after the cart, but they did not hear my cries. I sat down by the roadside and stared after the cart until I lost sight of it. That was in England, and I was not three years old.”
“But surely,” Gavin said, “they came back to look for you?”
“So far as I know,” Babbie answered hardly, “they did not come back. I have never seen them since. I think they were drunk. My only recollection of my mother is that she once took me to see the dead body of some gypsy who had been murdered. She told me to dip my hand in the blood, so that I could say I had done so when I became a woman. It was meant as a treat to me, and is the one kindness I am sure I got from her. Curiously enough, I felt the shame of her deserting me for many years afterwards. As a child I cried hysterically at thought of it; it pained me when I was at school in Edinburgh every time I saw the other girls writing home; I cannot think of it without a shudder even now. It is what makes me worse than other women.”
Her voice had altered, and she was speaking passionately.
“Sometimes,” she continued, more gently, “I try to think that my mother did come back for me, and then went away because she heard I was in better hands than hers. It was Lord Rintoul who found me, and I owe everything to him. You will say that he has no need to be proud of me. He took me home on his horse, and paid his gardener’s wife to rear me. She was Scotch, and that is why I can speak two languages. It was he, too, who sent me to school in Edinburgh.”
“He has been very kind to you,” said Gavin, who would have preferred to dislike the earl.
“So kind,” answered Babbie, “that now he is to marry me. But do you know why he has done all this?”
Now again she was agitated, and spoke indignantly.
“It is all because I have a pretty face,” she said, her bosom rising and falling. “Men think of nothing else. He had no pity for the deserted child. I knew that while I was yet on his horse. When he came to the gardener’s afterwards, it was not to give me some one to love, it was only to look upon what was called my beauty; I was merely a picture to him, and even the gardener’s children knew it and sought to terrify me by saying, ‘You are losing your looks; the earl will not care for you any more.’ Sometimes he brought his friends to see me, ‘because I was such a lovely child,’ and if they did not agree with him on that point he left without kissing me. Throughout my whole girlhood I was taught nothing but to please him, and the only way to do that was to be pretty. It was the only virtue worth striving for; the others were never thought of when he asked how I was getting on. Once I had fever and nearly died, yet this knowledge that my face was everything was implanted in me so that my fear lest he should think me ugly when I recovered terrified me into hysterics. I dream still that I am in that fever and all my fears return. He did think me ugly when he saw me next. I remember the incident so well still. I had run to him, and he was lifting me up to kiss me when he saw that my face had changed. ‘What a cruel disappointment,’ he said, and turned his back on me. I had given him a child’s love until then, but from that day I was hard and callous.”
“And when was it you became beautiful again?” Gavin asked, by no means in the mind to pay compliments.
“A year passed,” she continued, “before I saw him again. In that time he had not asked for me once, and the gardener had kept me out of charity. It was by an accident that we met, and at first he did not know me. Then he said, ‘Why, Babbie, I believe you are to be a beauty, after all!’ I hated him for that, and stalked away from him, but he called after me, ‘Bravo! she walks like a queen’; and it was because I walked like a queen that he sent me to an Edinburgh school. He used to come to see me every year, and as I grew up the girls called me Lady Rintoul. He was not fond of me; he is not fond of me now. He would as soon think of looking at the back of a picture as at what I am apart from my face, but he dotes on it, and is to marry it. Is that love? Long before I left school, which was shortly before you came to Thrums, he had told his sister that he was determined to marry me, and she hated me for it, making me as uncomfortable as she could, so that I almost looked forward to the marriage because it would be such a humiliation to her.”
In admitting this she looked shamefacedly at Gavin, and then went on:
“It is humiliating him too. I understand him. He would like not to want to marry me, for he is ashamed of my origin, but he cannot help it. It is this feeling that has brought him here, so that the marriage may take place where my history is not known.”
“The secret has been well kept,” Gavin said, “for they have failed to discover it even in Thrums.”
“Some of the Spittal servants suspect it, nevertheless,” Babbie answered, “though how much they know I cannot say. He has not a servant now, either here or in England, who knew me as a child. The gardener who befriended me was sent away long ago. Lord Rintoul looks upon me as a disgrace to him that he cannot live without.”
“I dare say he cares for you more than you think,” Gavin said gravely.
“He is infatuated about my face, or the pose of my head, or something of that sort,” Babbie said bitterly, “or he would not have endured me so long. I have twice had the wedding postponed, chiefly, I believe, to enrage my natural enemy, his sister, who is as much aggravated by my reluctance to marry him as by his desire to marry me. However, I also felt that imprisonment for life was approaching as the day drew near, and I told him that if he did not defer the wedding I should run away. He knows I am capable of it, for twice I ran away from school. If his sister only knew that!”
For a moment it was the old Babbie Gavin saw; but her glee was short-lived, and she resumed sedately:
“They were kind to me at school, but the life was so dull and prim that I ran off in a gypsy dress of my own making. That is what it is to have gypsy blood in one. I was away for a week the first time, wandering the country alone, telling fortunes, dancing and singing in woods, and sleeping in barns. I am the only woman in the world well brought up who is not afraid of mice or rats. That is my gypsy blood again. After that wild week I went back to the school of my own will, and no one knows of the escapade but my schoolmistress and Lord Rintoul. The second time, however, I was detected singing in the street, and then my future husband was asked to take me away. Yet Miss Feversham cried when I left, and told me that I was the nicest girl she knew, as well as the nastiest. She said she should love me as soon as I was not one of her boarders.”
“And then you came to the Spittal?”
“Yes; and Lord Rintoul wanted me to say I was sorry for what I had done, but I told him I need not say that, for I was sure to do it again. As you know, I have done it several times since then; and though I am a different woman since I knew you, I dare say I shall go on doing it at times all my life. You shake your head because you do not understand. It is not that I make up my mind to break out in that way; I may not have had the least desire to do it for weeks, and then suddenly, when I am out riding, or at dinner, or at a dance, the craving to be a gypsy again is so strong that I never think of resisting it; I would risk my life to gratify it. Yes, whatever my life in the future is to be, I know that must be a part of it. I used to pretend at the Spittal that I had gone to bed, and then escape by the window. I was mad with glee at those times, but I always returned before morning, except once, the last time I saw you, when I was away for nearly twenty-four hours. Lord Rintoul was so glad to see me come back then that he almost forgave me for going away. There is nothing more to tell except that on the night of the riot it was not my gypsy nature that brought me to Thrums, but a desire to save the poor weavers. I had heard Lord Rintoul and the sheriff discussing the contemplated raid. I have hidden nothing from you. In time, perhaps, I shall have suffered sufficiently for all my wickedness.”
Gavin rose weariedly, and walked through the mudhouse looking at her.
“This is the end of it all,” he said harshly, coming to a standstill. “I loved you, Babbie.”
“No,” she answered, shaking her head. “You never knew me until now, and so it was not me you loved. I know what you thought I was, and I will try to be it now.”
“If you had only told me this before,” the minister said sadly, “it might not have been too late.”
THE HILL BEFORE DARKNESS FELL — SCENE OF THE IMPENDING CATASTROPHE.
“You are better now?” I heard Gavin ask, presently.
He thought that having been taken ill suddenly I had waved to him for help because he chanced to be near. With all my wits about me I might have left him in that belief, for rather would I have deceived him than had him wonder why his welfare seemed so vital to me. But I, who thought the capacity for being taken aback had gone from me, clung to his arm and thanked God audibly that he still lived. He did not tell me then how my agitation puzzled him, but led me kindly to the hill, where we could talk without listeners. By the time we reached it I was again wary, and I had told him what had brought me to Thrums, without mentioning how the story of his death reached my ears, or through whom.
“Mr. McKenzie,” he said, interrupting me, “galloped all the way from the Spittal on the same errand. However, no one has been hurt much, except the piper himself.”
Then he told me how the rumor arose.
“You know of the incident at the Spittal, and that Campbell marched off in high dudgeon? I understand that he spoke to no one between the Spittal and Thrums, but by the time he arrived here he was more communicative; yes, and thirstier. He was treated to drink in several public-houses by persons who wanted to hear his story, and by-and-by he began to drop hints of knowing something against the earl’s bride. Do you know Rob Dow?”
“Yes,” I answered, “and what you have done for him.”
“Ah, sir!” he said, sighing, “for a long time I thought I was to be God’s instrument in making a better man of Rob, but my power over him went long ago. Ten short months of the ministry takes some of the vanity out of a man.”
Looking sideways at him I was startled by the unnatural brightness of his eyes. Unconsciously he had acquired the habit of pressing his teeth together in the pauses of his talk, shutting them on some woe that would proclaim itself, as men do who keep their misery to themselves.
“A few hours ago,” he went on, “I heard Rob’s voice in altercation as I passed the Bull tavern, and I had a feeling that if I failed with him so should I fail always throughout my ministry. I walked into the public-house, and stopped at the door of a room in which Dow and the piper were sitting drinking. I heard Rob saying, fiercely, ‘If what you say about her is true, Highlandman, she’s the woman I’ve been looking for this half year and mair; what is she like?’ I guessed, from what I had been told of the piper, that they were speaking of the earl’s bride; but Rob saw me and came to an abrupt stop, saying to his companion, ‘Dinna say another word about her afore the minister.’ Rob would have come away at once in answer to my appeal, but the piper was drunk and would not be silenced. ‘I’ll tell the minister about her, too,’ he began. ‘You dinna ken what you’re doing,’ Rob roared, and then, as if to save my ears from scandal at any cost, he struck Campbell a heavy blow on the mouth. I tried to intercept the blow, with the result that I fell, and then some one ran out of the tavern crying, ‘He’s killed!’ The piper had been stunned, but the story went abroad that he had stabbed me for interfering with him. That is really all. Nothing, as you know, can overtake an untruth if it has a minute’s start.”
“Where is Campbell now?”
“Sleeping off the effect of the blow: but Dow has fled. He was terrified at the shouts of murder, and ran off up the West Town end. The doctor’s dogcart was standing at a door there and Rob jumped into it and drove off. They did not chase him far, because he is sure to hear the truth soon, and then, doubtless, he will come back.”
Though in a few hours we were to wonder at our denseness, neither Gavin nor I saw why Dow had struck the Highlander down rather than let him tell his story in the minister’s presence. One moment’s suspicion would have lit our way to the whole truth, but of the spring to all Rob’s behavior in the past eight months we were ignorant, and so to Gavin the Bull had only been the scene of a drunken brawl, while I forgot to think in the joy of finding him alive.
“I have a prayer-meeting for rain presently,” Gavin said, breaking a picture that had just appeared unpleasantly before me of Babbie still in agony at Nanny’s, “but before I leave you tell me why this rumor caused you such distress.”
The question troubled me, and I tried to avoid it. Crossing the hill we had by this time drawn near a hollow called the Toad’s-hole, then gay and noisy with a caravan of gypsies. They were those same wild Lindsays, for whom Gavin had searched Caddam one eventful night, and as I saw them crowding round their king, a man well known to me, I guessed what they were at.
“Mr. Dishart,” I said abruptly, “would you like to see a gypsy marriage? One is taking place there just now. That big fellow is the king, and he is about to marry two of his people over the tongs. The ceremony will not detain us five minutes, though the rejoicings will go on all night.”
I have been present at more than one gypsy wedding in my time, and at the wild, weird orgies that followed them, but what is interesting to such as I may not be for a minister’s eyes, and, frowning at my proposal, Gavin turned his back upon the Toad’s-hole. Then, as we recrossed the hill, to get away from the din of the camp, I pointed out to him that the report of his death had brought McKenzie to Thrums, as well as me.
“As soon as McKenzie heard I was not dead,” he answered, “he galloped off to the Spittal, without even seeing me. I suppose he posted back to be in time for the night’s rejoicings there. So you see, it was not solicitude for me that brought him. He came because a servant at the Spittal was supposed to have done the deed.”
“Well, Mr. Dishart,” I had to say, “why should I deny that I have a warm regard for you? You have done brave work in our town.”
“It has been little,” he replied. “With God’s help it will be more in future.”
He meant that he had given time to his sad love affair that he owed to his people. Of seeing Babbie again I saw that he had given up hope. Instead of repining, he was devoting his whole soul to God’s work. I was proud of him, and yet I grieved, for I could not think that God wanted him to bury his youth so soon.
“I had thought,” he confessed to me, “that you were one of those who did not like my preaching.”
“You were mistaken,” I said, gravely. I dared not tell him that, except his mother, none would have sat under him so eagerly as I.
“Nevertheless,” he said, “you were a member of the Auld Licht church in Mr. Carfrae’s time, and you left it when I came.”
“I heard your first sermon,” I said.
“Ah,” he replied. “I had not been long in Thrums before I discovered that if I took tea with any of my congregation and declined a second cup, they thought it a reflection on their brewing.”
“You must not look upon my absence in that light,” was all I could say. “There are reasons why I cannot come.”
He did not press me further, thinking I meant that the distance was too great, though frailer folk than I walked twenty miles to hear him. We might have parted thus had we not wandered by chance to the very spot where I had met him and Babbie. There is a seat there now for those who lose their breath on the climb up, and so I have two reasons nowadays for not passing the place by.
We read each other’s thoughts, and Gavin said calmly, “I have not seen her since that night. She disappeared as into a grave.”
How could I answer when I knew that Babbie was dying for want of him, not half a mile away?
“You seemed to understand everything that night,” he went on; “or if you did not, your thoughts were very generous to me.”
In my sorrow for him I did not notice that we were moving on again, this time in the direction of Windyghoul.
“She was only a gypsy girl,” he said, abruptly, and I nodded. “But I hoped,” he continued, “that she would be my wife.”
“I understood that,” I said.
“There was nothing monstrous to you,” he asked, looking me in the face, “in a minister’s marrying a gypsy?”
I own that if I had loved a girl, however far below or above me in degree, I would have married her had she been willing to take me. But to Gavin I only answered, “These are matters a man must decide for himself.”
“I had decided for myself,” he said, emphatically.
“Yet,” I said, wanting him to talk to me of Margaret, “in such a case one might have others to consider besides himself.”
“A man’s marriage,” he answered, “is his own affair, I would have brooked no interference from my congregation.”
I thought, “There is some obstinacy left in him still;” but aloud I said, “It was of your mother I was thinking.”
“She would have taken Babbie to her heart,” he said, with the fond conviction of a lover.
I doubted it, but I only asked, “Your mother knows nothing of her?”
“Nothing,” he rejoined. “It would be cruelty to tell my mother of her now that she is gone.”
Gavin’s calmness had left him, and he was striding quickly nearer to Windyghoul. I was in dread lest he should see the Egyptian at Nanny’s door, yet to have turned him in another direction might have roused his suspicions. When we were within a hundred yards of the mudhouse, I knew that there was no Babbie in sight. We halved the distance and then I saw her at the open window. Gavin’s eyes were on the ground, but she saw him. I held my breath, fearing that she would run out to him.
“You have never seen her since that night?” Gavin asked me, without hope in his voice.
Had he been less hopeless he would have wondered why I did not reply immediately. I was looking covertly at the mudhouse, of which we were now within a few yards. Babbie’s face had gone from the window, and the door remained shut. That she could hear every word we uttered now, I could not doubt. But she was hiding from the man for whom her soul longed. She was sacrificing herself for him.
“Never,” I answered, notwithstanding my pity of the brave girl, and then while I was shaking lest he should go in to visit Nanny, I heard the echo of the Auld Licht bell.
“That calls me to the meeting for rain,” Gavin said, bidding me good-night. I had acted for Margaret, and yet I had hardly the effrontery to take his hand. I suppose he saw sympathy in my face, for suddenly the cry broke from him --
“If I could only know that nothing evil had befallen her!”
Babbie heard him and could not restrain a heart-breaking sob.
“What was that?” he said, starting.
A moment I waited, to let her show herself if she chose. But the mudhouse was silent again.
“It was some boy in the wood,” I answered.
“Good-bye,” he said, trying to smile.
Had I let him go, here would have been the end of his love story, but that piteous smile unmanned me, and I could not keep the words back.
“She is in Nanny’s house,” I cried.
In another moment these two were together for weal or woe, and I had set off dizzily for the school-house, feeling now that I had been false to Margaret, and again exulting in what I had done. By and by the bell stopped, and Gavin and Babbie regarded it as little as I heeded the burns now crossing the glen road noisily at places that had been dry two hours before.
FIRST JOURNEY OF THE DOMINIE TO THRUMS DURING THE TWENTY-FOUR HOURS.
“How did it happen?” I asked more than once, but the Egyptian was only with me in the body, and she did not hear. I might have been talking to some one a mile away whom a telescope had drawn near my eyes.
When I put on my bonnet, however, she knew that I was going to Thrums, and she rose and walked to the door, looking behind to see that I followed.
“You must not come,” I said harshly, but her hand started to her heart as if I had shot her, and I added quickly, “Come.” We were already some distance on our way before I repeated my question.
“What matter how it happened?” she answered piteously, and they were words of which I felt the force. But when she said a little later, “I thought you would say it is not true,” I took courage, and forced her to tell me all she knew. She sobbed while she spoke, if one may sob without tears.
“I heard of it at the Spittal,” she said. “The news broke out suddenly there that the piper had quarrelled with some one in Thrums, and that in trying to separate them Mr. Dishart was stabbed. There is no doubt of its truth.”
“We should have heard of it here,” I said hopefully, “before the news reached the Spittal. It cannot be true.”
“It was brought to the Spittal,” she answered, “by the hill road.”
Then my spirits sank again, for I knew that this was possible. There is a path, steep but short, across the hills between Thrums and the top of the glen, which Mr. Glendinning took frequently when he had to preach at both places on the same Sabbath. It is still called the Minister’s Road.
“Yet if the earl had believed it he would have sent some one into Thrums for particulars,” I said, grasping at such comfort as I could make.
“He does believe it,” she answered. “He told me of it himself.”
You see the Egyptian was careless of her secret now; but what was that secret to me? An hour ago it would have been much, and already it was not worth listening to. If she had begun to tell me why Lord Rintoul took a gypsy girl into his confidence I should not have heard her.
“I ran quickly,” she said. “Even if a messenger was sent he might be behind me.”
Was it her words or the tramp of a horse that made us turn our heads at that moment? I know not. But far back in a twist of the road we saw a horseman approaching at such a reckless pace that I thought he was on a runaway. We stopped instinctively, and waited for him, and twice he disappeared in hollows of the road, and then was suddenly tearing down upon us. I recognised in him young Mr. McKenzie, a relative of Rintoul, and I stretched out my arms to compel him to draw up. He misunderstood my motive, and was raising his whip threateningly, when he saw the Egyptian. It is not too much to say that he swayed in the saddle. The horse galloped on, though he had lost hold of the reins. He looked behind until he rounded a corner, and I never saw such amazement mixed with incredulity on a human face. For some minutes I expected to see him coming back, but when he did not I said wonderingly to the Egyptian --
“He knew you.”
“Did he?” she answered indifferently, and I think we spoke no more until we were in Windyghoul. Soon we were barely conscious of each other’s presence. Never since have I walked between the school-house and Thrums in so short a time, nor seen so little on the way.
In the Egyptian’s eyes, I suppose, was a picture of Gavin lying dead; but if her grief had killed her thinking faculties, mine, that was only less keen because I had been struck down once before, had set all the wheels of my brain in action. For it seemed to me that the hour had come when I must disclose myself to Margaret.
I had realised always that if such a necessity did arise it could only be caused by Gavin’s premature death, or by his proving a bad son to her. Some may wonder that I could have looked calmly thus far into the possible, but I reply that the night of Adam Dishart’s homecoming had made of me a man whom the future could not surprise again. Though I saw Gavin and his mother happy in our Auld Licht manse, that did not prevent my considering the contingencies which might leave her without a son. In the school-house I had brooded over them as one may think over moves on a draught-board. It may have been idle, but it was done that I might know how to act best for Margaret if anything untoward occurred. The time for such action had come. Gavin’s death had struck me hard, but it did not crush me. I was not unprepared. I was going to Margaret now.
What did I see as I walked quickly along the glen road, with Babbie silent by my side, and I doubt not pods of the broom cracking all around us? I saw myself entering the Auld Licht manse, where Margaret sat weeping over the body of Gavin, and there was none to break my coming to her, for none but she and I knew what had been.
I saw my Margaret again, so fragile now, so thin the wrists, her hair turned grey. No nearer could I go, but stopped at the door, grieving for her, and at last saying her name aloud.
I saw her raise her face, and look upon me for the first time for eighteen years. She did not scream at sight of me, for the body of her son lay between us, and bridged the gulf that Adam Dishart had made.
I saw myself draw near her reverently and say, “Margaret, he is dead, and that is why I have come back,” and I saw her put her arms around my neck as she often did long ago.
But it was not to be. Never since that night at Harvie have I spoken to Margaret.
The Egyptian and I were to come to Windyghoul before I heard her speak. She was not addressing me. Here Gavin and she had met first, and she was talking of that meeting to herself.
“It was there,” I heard her say softly, as she gazed at the bush beneath which she had seen him shaking his fist at her on the night of the riots. A little farther on she stopped where a path from Windyghoul sets off for the well in the wood. She looked up it wistfully, and there I left her behind, and pressed on to the mudhouse to ask Nanny Webster if the minister was dead. Nanny’s gate was swinging in the wind, but her door was shut, and for a moment I stood at it like a coward, afraid to enter and hear the worst.
The house was empty. I turned from it relieved, as if I had got a respite, and while I stood in the garden the Egyptian came to me shuddering, her twitching face asking the question that would not leave her lips.
“There is no one in the house,” I said. “Nanny is perhaps at the well.”
But the gypsy went inside, and pointing to the fire said, “It has been out for hours. Do you not see? The murder has drawn every one into Thrums.”
So I feared. A dreadful night was to pass before I knew that this was the day of the release of Sanders Webster, and that frail Nanny had walked into Tilliedrum to meet him at the prison gate.
Babbie sank upon a stool, so weak that I doubt whether she heard me tell her to wait there until my return. I hurried into Thrums, not by the hill, though it is the shorter way, but by the Roods, for I must hear all before I ventured to approach the manse. From Windyghoul to the top of the Roods it is a climb and then a steep descent. The road has no sooner reached its highest point than it begins to fall in the straight line of houses called the Roods, and thus I came upon a full view of the street at once. A cart was laboring up it. There were women sitting on stones at their doors, and girls playing at palaulays, and out of the house nearest me came a black figure. My eyes failed me; I was asking so much from them. They made him tall and short, and spare and stout, so that I knew it was Gavin, and yet, looking again, feared, but all the time, I think, I knew it was he.
SCENE AT THE SPITTAL.
Within an hour after I had left him, Waster Lunny walked into the school-house and handed me his snuff-mull, which I declined politely. It was with this ceremony that we usually opened our conversations.
“I’ve seen the post,” he said, “and he tells me there has been a queer ploy at the Spittal. It’s a wonder the marriage hasna been turned into a burial, and all because o’ that Highland stirk, Lauchlan Campbell.”
Waster Lunny was a man who had to retrace his steps in telling a story if he tried short cuts, and so my custom was to wait patiently while he delved through the ploughed fields that always lay between him and his destination.
“As you ken, Rintoul’s so little o’ a Scotchman that he’s no muckle better than an Englisher. That maun be the reason he hadna mair sense than to tramp on a Highlandman’s ancestors, as he tried to tramp on Lauchlan’s this day.”
“If Lord Rintoul insulted the piper,” I suggested, giving the farmer a helping hand cautiously, “it would be through inadvertence. Rintoul only bought the Spittal a year ago, and until then, I daresay, he had seldom been on our side of the Border.”
This was a foolish interruption, for it set Waster Lunny off in a new direction.
“That’s what Elspeth says. Says she, ‘When the earl has grand estates in England, what for does he come to a barren place like the Spittal to be married? It’s gey like,’ she says, ‘as if he wanted the marriage to be got by quietly; a thing,’ says she, ‘that no woman can stand. Furthermore,’ Elspeth says, ‘how has the marriage been postponed twice?’ We ken what the servants at the Spittal says to that, namely, that the young lady is no keen to take him, but Elspeth winna listen to sic arguments. She says either the earl had grown timid (as mony a man does) when the wedding-day drew near, or else his sister that keeps his house is mad at the thocht o’ losing her place; but as for the young leddy’s being sweer, says Elspeth, ‘an earl’s an earl however auld he is, and a lassie’s a lassie however young she is, and weel she kens you’re never sure o’ a man’s no changing his mind about you till you’re tied to him by law, after which it doesna so muckle matter whether he changes his mind about you or no.’ Ay, there’s a quirk in it some gait, dominie; but it’s a deep water Elspeth canna bottom.”
“It is,” I agreed; “but you were to tell me what Birse told you of the disturbance at the Spittal.”
“Ay, weel,” he answered, “the post puts the wite o’t on her little leddyship, as they call her, though she winna be a leddyship till the morn. All I can say is that if the earl was saft enough to do sic a thing out of fondness for her, it’s time he was married on her, so that he may come to his senses again. That’s what I say; but Elspeth conters me, of course, and says she, ‘If the young leddy was so careless o’ insulting other folks’ ancestors, it proves she has nane o’ her ain; for them that has china plates themsel’s is the maist careful no to break the china plates of others.’”
“But what was the insult? Was Lauchlan dismissed?”
“Na, faags! It was waur than that. Dominie, you’re dull in the uptake compared to Elspeth. I hadna telled her half the story afore she jaloused the rest. However, to begin again; there’s great feasting and rejoicings gaen on at the Spittal the now, and also a banquet, which the post says is twa dinners in one. Weel, there’s a curran Ogilvys among the guests, and it was them that egged on her little leddyship to make the daring proposal to the earl. What was the proposal? It was no less than that the twa pipers should be ordered to play ‘The Bonny House o’ Airlie.’ Dominie, I wonder you can tak it so calm when you ken that’s the Ogilvy’s sang, and that it’s aimed at the clan o’ Campbell.”
“Pooh!” I said. “The Ogilvys and the Campbells used to be mortal enemies, but the feud has been long forgotten.”
“Ay, I’ve heard tell,” Waster Lunny said sceptically, “that Airlie and Argyle shakes hands now like Christians; but I’m thinking that’s just afore the Queen. Dinna speak now, for I’m in the thick o’t. Her little leddyship was all hinging in gold and jewels, the which winna be her ain till the morn; and she leans ower to the earl and whispers to him to get the pipers to play ‘The Bonny House.’ He wasna willing, for says he, ‘There’s Ogilvys at the table, and ane o’ the pipers is a Campbell, and we’ll better let sleeping dogs lie.’ However, the Ogilvys lauched at his caution; and he was so infatuated wi’ her little leddyship that he gae in, and he cried out to the pipers to strike up ‘The Bonny House.’”
Waster Lunny pulled his chair nearer me and rested his hand on my knees.
“Dominie,” he said in a voice that fell now and again into a whisper, “them looking on swears that when Lauchlan Campbell heard these monstrous orders his face became ugly and black, so that they kent in a jiffy what he would do. It’s said a’ body jumped back frae him in a sudden dread, except poor Angus, the other piper, wha was busy tuning up for ‘The Bonny House.’ Weel, Angus had got no farther in the tune than the first skirl when Lauchlan louped at him, and ripped up the startled crittur’s pipes wi’ his dirk. The pipes gae a roar o’ agony like a stuck swine, and fell gasping on the floor. What happened next was that Lauchlan wi’ his dirk handy for onybody that micht try to stop him, marched once round the table, playing ‘The Campbells are Coming,’ and then straucht out o’ the Spittal, his chest far afore him, and his head so weel back that he could see what was going on ahint. Frae the Spittal to here he never stopped that fearsome tune, and I’se warrant he’s blawing away at it at this moment through the streets o’ Thrums.”
Waster Lunny was not in his usual spirits, or he would have repeated his story before he left me, for he had usually as much difficulty in coming to an end as in finding a beginning. The drought was to him as serious a matter as death in the house, and as little to be forgotten for a lengthened period.
“There’s to be a prayer-meeting for rain in the Auld Licht kirk the night,” he told me as I escorted him as far as my side of the Quharity, now almost a dead stream, pitiable to see, “and I’m gaen; though I’m sweer to leave thae puir cattle o’ mine. You should see how they look at me when I gie them mair o’ that rotten grass to eat. It’s eneuch to mak a man greet, for what richt hae I to keep kye when I canna meat them?”
Waster Lunny has said to me more than once that the great surprise of his life was when Elspeth was willing to take him. Many a time, however, I have seen that in him which might have made any weaver’s daughter proud of such a man, and I saw it again when we came to the river side.
“I’m no ane o’ thae farmers,” he said, truthfully, “that’s aye girding at the weather, and Elspeth and me kens that we hae been dealt wi’ bountifully since we took this farm wi’ gey anxious hearts. That woman, dominie, is eneuch to put a brave face on a coward, and it’s no langer syne than yestreen when I was sitting in the dumps, looking at the aurora borealis, which I canna but regard as a messenger o’ woe, that she put her hand on my shoulder and she says, ‘Waster Lunny, twenty year syne we began life thegither wi’ nothing but the claethes on our back, and an it please God we can begin it again, for I hae you and you hae me, and I’m no cast down if you’re no.’ Dominie, is there mony sic women in the warld as that?”
“Many a one,” I said.
“Ay, man, it shamed me, for I hae a kind o’ delight in angering Elspeth, just to see what she’ll say. I could hae ta’en her on my knee at that minute, but the bairns was there, and so it wouldna hae dune. But I cheered her up, for, after all, the drought canna put us so far back as we was twenty years syne, unless it’s true what my father said, that the aurora borealis is the devil’s rainbow. I saw it sax times in July month, and it made me shut my een. You was out admiring it, dominie, but I can never forget that it was seen in the year twelve just afore the great storm. I was only a laddie then, but I mind how that awful wind stripped a’ the standing corn in the glen in less time than we’ve been here at the water’s edge. It was called the deil’s besom. My father’s hinmost words to me was, ‘It’s time eneuch to greet, laddie, when you see the aurora borealis.’ I mind he was so complete ruined in an hour that he had to apply for relief frae the poor’s rates. Think o’ that, and him a proud man. He would tak’ nothing till one winter day when we was a’ starving, and syne I gaed wi’ him to speir for’t, and he telled me to grip his hand ticht, so that the cauldness o’ mine micht gie him courage. They were doling out the charity in the Town’s House, and I had never been in’t afore. I canna look at it now without thinking o’ that day when me and my father gaed up the stair thegither. Mr. Duthie was presiding at the time, and he wasna muckle older than Mr. Dishart is now. I mind he speired for proof that we was needing, and my father couldna speak. He just pointed at me. ‘But you have a good coat on your back yoursel’,’ Mr. Duthie said, for there were mony waiting, sair needing. ‘It was lended him to come here,’ I cried, and without a word my father opened the coat, and they saw he had nothing on aneath, and his skin blue wi ‘cauld. Dominie, Mr. Duthie handed him one shilling and saxpence, and my father’s fingers closed greedily on’t for a minute, and syne it fell to the ground. They put it back in his hand, and it slipped out again, and Mr. Duthie gave it back to him, saying, ‘Are you so cauld as that?’ But, oh, man, it wasna cauld that did it, but shame o’ being on the rates. The blood a’ ran to my father’s head, and syne left it as quick, and he flung down the siller and walked out o’ the Town House wi’ me running after him. We warstled through that winter, God kens how, and it’s near a pleasure to me to think o’t now, for, rain or no rain, I can never be reduced to sic straits again.”
The farmer crossed the water without using the stilts which were no longer necessary, and I little thought, as I returned to the school-house, what terrible things were to happen before he could offer me his snuff-mull again. Serious as his talk had been it was neither of drought nor of the incident at the Spittal that I sat down to think. My anxiety about Gavin came back to me until I was like a man imprisoned between walls of his own building. It may be that my presentiments of that afternoon look gloomier now than they were, because I cannot return to them save over a night of agony, black enough to darken any time connected with it. Perhaps my spirits only fell as the wind rose, for wind ever takes me back to Harvie, and when I think of Harvie my thoughts are of the saddest. I know that I sat for some hours, now seeing Gavin pay the penalty of marrying the Egyptian, and again drifting back to my days with Margaret, until the wind took to playing tricks with me, so that I heard Adam Dishart enter our home by the sea every time the school-house door shook.
I became used to the illusion after starting several times, and thus when the door did open, about seven o’clock, it was only the wind rushing to my fire like a shivering dog that made me turn my head. Then I saw the Egyptian staring at me, and though her sudden appearance on my threshold was a strange thing, I forgot it in the whiteness of her face. She was looking at me like one who has asked a question of life or death, and stopped her heart for the reply.
“What is it?” I cried, and for a moment I believe I was glad she did not answer. She seemed to have told me already as much as I could bear.
“He has not heard,” she said aloud in an expressionless voice, and, turning, would have slipped away without another word.
“Is any one dead?” I asked, seizing her hands and letting them fall, they were so clammy. She nodded, and trying to speak could not.
“He is dead,” she said at last in a whisper. “Mr. Dishart is dead,” and she sat down quietly.
At that I covered my face, crying, “God help Margaret!” and then she rose, saying fiercely, so that I drew back from her, “There is no Margaret; he only cared for me.”
“She is his mother,” I said hoarsely, and then she smiled to me, so that I thought her a harmless mad thing. “He was killed by a piper called Lauchlan Campbell,” she said, looking up at me suddenly. “It was my fault.”
“Poor Margaret!” I wailed.
“And poor Babbie,” she entreated pathetically; “will no one say, ‘Poor Babbie’?”
BEGINNING OF THE TWENTY-FOUR HOURS.
I can tell still how the whole of the glen was engaged about the hour of noon on the fourth of August month; a day to be among the last forgotten by any of us, though it began as quietly as a roaring March. At the Spittal, between which and Thrums this is a halfway house, were gathered two hundred men in kilts, and many gentry from the neighboring glens, to celebrate the earl’s marriage, which was to take place on the morrow, and thither, too, had gone many of my pupils to gather gossip, at which girls of six are trustier hands than boys of twelve. Those of us, however, who were neither children nor of gentle blood, remained at home, the farmers more taken up with the want of rain, now become a calamity, than with an old man’s wedding, and their womenfolk wringing their hands for rain also, yet finding time to marvel at the marriage’s taking place at the Spittal instead of in England, of which the ignorant spoke vaguely as an estate of the bride’s.
For my own part I could talk of the disastrous drought with Waster Lunny as I walked over his parched fields, but I had not such cause as he to brood upon it by day and night; and the ins and outs of the earl’s marriage were for discussing at a tea-table, where there were women to help one to conclusions, rather than for the reflections of a solitary dominie, who had seen neither bride nor bridegroom. So it must be confessed that when I might have been regarding the sky moodily, or at the Spittal, where a free table that day invited all, I was sitting in the school-house, heeling my left boot, on which I have always been a little hard.
I made small speed, not through lack of craft, but because one can no more drive in tackets properly than take cities unless he gives his whole mind to it; and half of mine was at the Auld Licht manse. Since our meeting six months earlier on the hill I had not seen Gavin, but I had heard much of him, and of a kind to trouble me.
“I saw nothing queer about Mr. Dishart,” was Waster Lunny’s frequent story, “till I hearkened to Elspeth speaking about it to the lasses (for I’m the last Elspeth would tell onything to, though I’m her man), and syne I minded I had been noticing it for months. Elspeth says,” he would go on, for he could no more forbear quoting his wife than complaining of her, “that the minister’ll listen to you nowadays wi’ his een glaring at you as if he had a perfectly passionate interest in what you were telling him (though it may be only about a hen wi’ the croup), and then, after all, he hasna heard a sylib. Ay, I listened to Elspeth saying that, when she thocht I was at the byre, and yet, would you believe it, when I says to her after lousing time, ‘I’ve been noticing of late that the minister loses what a body tells him,’ all she answers is ‘Havers.’ Tod, but women’s provoking.”
“I allow,” Birse said, “that on the first Sabbath o’ June month, and again on the third Sabbath, he poured out the Word grandly, but I’ve ta’en note this curran Sabbaths that if he’s no michty magnificent he’s michty poor. There’s something damming up his mind, and when he gets by it he’s a roaring water, but when he doesna he’s a despizable trickle. The folk thinks it’s a woman that’s getting in his way, but dinna tell me that about sic a scholar; I tell you he would gang ower a toon o’ women like a loaded cart ower new-laid stanes.”
Wearyworld hobbled after me up the Roods one day, pelting me with remarks, though I was doing my best to get away from him. “Even Rob Dow sees there’s something come ower the minister,” he bawled, “for Rob’s fou ilka Sabbath now. Ay, but this I will say for Mr. Dishart, that he aye gies me a civil word,” I thought I had left the policeman behind with this, but next minute he roared, “And whatever is the matter wi’ him it has made him kindlier to me than ever.” He must have taken the short cut through Lunan’s close, for at the top of the Roods his voice again made up on me. “Dagone you, for a cruel pack to put your fingers to your lugs ilka time I open my mouth.”
As for Waster Lunny’s daughter Easie, who got her schooling free for redding up the school-house and breaking my furniture, she would never have been off the gossip about the minister, for she was her mother in miniature, with a tongue that ran like a pump after the pans are full, not for use but for the mere pleasure of spilling.
On that awful fourth of August I not only had all this confused talk in my head but reason for jumping my mind between it and the Egyptian (as if to catch them together unawares), and I was like one who, with the mechanism of a watch jumbled in his hand, could set it going if he had the art.
Of the gypsy I knew nothing save what I had seen that night, yet what more was there to learn? I was aware that she loved Gavin and that he loved her. A moment had shown it to me. Now with the Auld Lichts, I have the smith’s acquaintance with his irons, and so I could not believe that they would suffer their minister to marry a vagrant. Had it not been for this knowledge, which made me fearful for Margaret, I would have done nothing to keep these two young people apart. Some to whom I have said this maintain that the Egyptian turned my head at our first meeting. Such an argument is not perhaps worth controverting. I admit that even now I straighten under the fire of a bright eye, as a pensioner may salute when he sees a young officer. In the shooting season, should I chance to be leaning over my dyke while English sportsmen pass (as is usually the case if I have seen them approaching), I remember nought of them save that they call me “she,” and end their greetings with “whatever” (which Waster Lunny takes to be a southron mode of speech), but their ladies dwell pleasantly in my memory, from their engaging faces to the pretty crumpled thing dangling on their arms, that is a hat or a basket, I am seldom sure which. The Egyptian’s beauty, therefore, was a gladsome sight to me, and none the less so that I had come upon it as unexpectedly as some men step into a bog. Had she been alone when I met her I cannot deny that I would have been content to look on her face, without caring what was inside it; but she was with her lover, and that lover was Gavin, and so her face was to me as little for admiring as this glen in a thunderstorm, when I know that some fellow-creature is lost on the hills.
If, however, it was no quick liking for the gypsy that almost tempted me to leave these two lovers to each other, what was it? It was the warning of my own life. Adam Dishart had torn my arm from Margaret’s, and I had not recovered the wrench in eighteen years. Rather than act his part between these two I felt tempted to tell them, “Deplorable as the result may be, if you who are a minister marry this vagabond, it will be still more deplorable if you do not.”
But there was Margaret to consider, and at thought of her I cursed the Egyptian aloud. What could I do to keep Gavin and the woman apart? I could tell him the secret of his mother’s life. Would that be sufficient? It would if he loved Margaret, as I did not doubt. Pity for her would make him undergo any torture rather than she should suffer again. But to divulge our old connection would entail her discovery of me, and I questioned if even the saving of Gavin could destroy the bitterness of that.
I might appeal to the Egyptian. I might tell her even what I shuddered to tell him. She cared for him, I was sure, well enough to have the courage to give him up. But where was I to find her?
Were she and Gavin meeting still? Perhaps the change which had come over the little minister meant that they had parted. Yet what I had heard him say to her on the hill warned me not to trust in any such solution of the trouble.
Boys play at casting a humming-top into the midst of others on the ground, and if well aimed it scatters them prettily. I seemed to be playing such a game with my thoughts, for each new one sent the others here and there, and so what could I do in the end but fling my tops aside, and return to the heeling of my boot?
I was thus engaged when the sudden waking of the glen into life took me to my window. There is seldom silence up here, for if the wind be not sweeping the heather, the Quharity, that I may not have heard for days, seems to have crept nearer to the school-house in the night, and if both wind and water be out of earshot, there is the crack of a gun, or Waster Lunny’s shepherd is on a stone near at hand whistling, or a lamb is scrambling through a fence, and kicking foolishly with its hind legs. These sounds I am unaware of until they stop, when I look up. Such a stillness was broken now by music.
From my window I saw a string of people walking rapidly down the glen, and Waster Lunny crossing his potato-field to meet them. Remembering that, though I was in my stocking soles, the ground was dry, I hastened to join the farmer, for I like to miss nothing. I saw a curious sight. In front of the little procession coming down the glen road, and so much more impressive than his satellites that they may be put of mind as merely ploughman and the like following a show, was a Highlander that I knew to be Lauchlan Campbell, one of the pipers engaged to lend music to the earl’s marriage. He had the name of a thrawn man when sober, but pretty at the pipes at both times, and he came marching down the glen blowing gloriously, as if he had the clan of Campbell at his heels. I know no man who is so capable on occasion of looking like twenty as a Highland piper, and never have I seen a face in such a blaze of passion as was Lauchlan Campbell’s that day. His following were keeping out of his reach, jumping back every time he turned round to shake his fist in the direction of the Spittal. While this magnificent man was yet some yards from us, I saw Waster Lunny, who had been in the middle of the road to ask questions, fall back in fear, and not being a fighting man myself, I jumped the dyke. Lauchlan gave me a look that sent me farther into the field, and strutted past, shrieking defiance through his pipes, until I lost him and his followers in a bend of the road.
“That’s a terrifying spectacle,” I heard Waster Lunny say when the music had become but a distant squeal. “You’re bonny at louping dykes, dominie, when there is a wild bull in front o’ you. Na, I canna tell what has happened, but at the least Lauchlan maun hae dirked the earl. Thae loons cried out to me as they gaed by that he has been blawing awa’ at that tune till he canna halt. What a wind’s in the crittur! I’m thinking there’s a hell in ilka Highlandman.”
“Take care then, Waster Lunny, that you dinna licht it,” said an angry voice that made us jump, though it was only Duncan, the farmer’s shepherd, who spoke.
“I had forgotten you was a Highlandman yoursel’, Duncan,” Waster Lunny said nervously; but Elspeth, who had come to us unnoticed, ordered the shepherd to return to the hillside, which he did haughtily.
“How did you no lay haud on that blast o’ wind, Lauchlan Campbell,” asked Elspeth of her husband, “and speir at him what had happened at the Spittal? A quarrel afore a marriage brings ill luck.”
“I’m thinking,” said the farmer, “that Rintoul’s making his ain ill luck by marrying on a young leddy.”
“A man’s never ower auld to marry,” said Elspeth.
“No, nor a woman,” rejoined Waster Lunny, “when she gets the chance. But, Elspeth, I believe I can guess what has fired that fearsome piper. Depend upon it, somebody has been speaking disrespectful about the crittur’s ancestors.”
“His ancestors!” exclaimed Elspeth, scornfully. “I’m thinking mine could hae bocht them at a crown the dozen.”
“Hoots,” said the farmer, “you’re o’ a weaving stock, and dinna understand about ancestors. Take a stick to a Highland laddie, and it’s no him you hurt, but his ancestors. Likewise it’s his ancestors that stanes you for it. When Duncan stalked awa the now, what think you he saw? He saw a farmer’s wife dauring to order about his ancestors; and if that’s the way wi’ a shepherd, what will it be wi’ a piper that has the kilts on him a’ day to mind him o’ his ancestors ilka time he looks down?”
Elspeth retired to discuss the probable disturbance at the Spittal with her family, giving Waster Lunny the opportunity of saying to me impressively --
“Man, man, has it never crossed you that it’s a queer thing the like o’ you and me having no ancestors? Ay, we had them in a manner o’ speaking, no doubt, but they’re as completely lost sicht o’ as a flagon lid that’s fallen ahint the dresser. Hech, sirs, but they would need a gey rubbing to get the rust off them now. I’ve been thinking that if I was to get my laddies to say their grandfather’s name a curran times ilka day, like the Catechism, and they were to do the same wi’ their bairns, and it was continued in future generations, we micht raise a fell field o’ ancestors in time. Ay, but Elspeth wouldna hear o’t. Nothing angers her mair than to hear me speak o’ planting trees for the benefit o’ them that’s to be farmers here after me; and as for ancestors, she would howk them up as quick as I could plant them. Losh, dominie, is that a boot in your hand?”
To my mortification I saw that I had run out of the school-house with the boot on my hand as if it were a glove, and back I went straightway, blaming myself for a man wanting in dignity. It was but a minor trouble this, however, even at the time; and to recall it later in the day was to look back on happiness, for though I did not know it yet, Lauchlan’s playing raised the curtain on the great act of Gavin’s life, and the twenty-four hours had begun, to which all I have told as yet is no more than the prologue.
the little minister
First published serially in Good Words 1891