THE GARDENER OF BALMAGHIE
I was wakened one morning by Jean coming to the side of my bed. She was fully dressed, as if to receive company, and her tall and straight figure looked imposing enough.
‘Rise!’ she said. ‘Rise! there's a chiel here, that wants ye to gang wi' him.’
‘A chiel, Jean Gordon?’ said I, in a sleepy kind of surprise. ‘What ken ye aboot him?’
‘Oh, I ken he's a honest lad,’ she said, ‘an' he brings ye a message frae the gardener o' Balmaghie that ye are to accompany him there for greater safety.’
‘A likely story!’ returned I, for I was none too well pleased to be wakened up out of my sleep at that time in the morning to see a regiment of Balmaghie gardeners. ‘There is great safety in the neighbourhood of the eagle's nest!’
‘There is so,’ said Jean Gordon, dryly—’for sparrows. 'Tis the safest place in the world for the like of them to build, for the eagle will not touch them, an' the lesser gleds dare not come near.’
Nor do I think that this saying pleased me over well, because I thought that a Gordon of Earlstoun, of whatever rank, was a city set on a hill that could not be hid.
Then Jean Gordon, the hermit of the Garpel glen, bade me an adieu, giving me an old-fashioned salutation as well, which savoured little of having forgotten all that she had lightlied to me.
‘Tak' tent to yoursel',’ she said. ‘Ye are a good lad and none so feckless as ye look. There's stuff and fushion in ye, an' ye micht even tak' the e'e o' woman—gin ye wad pad your legs.’
And with this she went in, leaving me in a quandary whether to throw a stone at her, or run back and take her round the neck.
I found the gardener of Balmaghie standing with his back towards me. He walked on a little before me without speaking, as though wishing me to follow him. He was, to the back view, dressed but ordinarily, yet with some of the neatness of a proper gentleman's servant.
And this was a great deal in a country where for common the men wear little that is handsome, save and except the Sabbath cloak—which if it do not, like charity, cover a multitude of sins, of a truth hides a multitude of old duddy clothes.
At the foot of the burn, where by the bridge it runs over some black and rugged rocks, the gardener stopped and turned round. I declare I never gat a greater or more pleasant surprise in my life, save as it may be, once—of what I have yet to tell.
‘Wat, dear Wat!’ I cried, and ran to him. We clasped one another's hands, and then we stood a little off, gazing each at the other. I had not known that I was so fond of him. But nothing draws the heart like coming through trials together. At least, so it is with men. 'Twixt women and men so many things draw the heart, that it is well-nigh impossible to separate one thing from the other.
‘How came Jean Gordon to say that you were the gardener at Balmaghie?’ I asked of him, when I was a little satisfied with looking at him.
‘Why, because I am the gardener at Balmaghie—second gardener!’ answered Wat, smiling in a sly way that he had when he meant to provoke and mystify me. Yet a way that I liked not ill, for he never used it save when he had within him a light and merry heart.
But I knew by this time how to counter his stroke, which was to hold one's peace, as if one cared nothing about the matter. For in this Wat was just like a woman, or a fencer, whom it provokes more to measure a thrust and avoid, than a hundred times to parry and return.
But for all I could not keep the anxiety out of my eyes as we walked along.
‘You do not want to hear,’ said he, provoking me; for because of Maisie Lennox and my mother, he knew that he had the better of me.
‘But I do, though!’ That was all I could say.
For indeed the matter was a mystery to me, as well it might be. Wat Gordon of Lochinvar, sometime favourite of her Grace the Duchess of Wellwood, now gardener to a latitudinarian and cavalier Galloway laird, that had been a ferlie even on a day of miracles.
Wat continued to smile and smile.
‘Well, I will tell you,’ he said. Yet for a while did not, but only walked on smiling.
At last he pursed his mouth and began to whistle. It was a bar or two of the air ‘Kate Kennedy is my darling.’
Now at that time I own that I was not bright in the uptake about such things. For I had not till lately concerned me much with love and women's favours, but it came across me all in an instant.
‘Oh!’ I said.
‘Ah!’ said Wat.
And we looked at one another and nodded—Wat defiantly.
‘Kate of the black eyebrows!’ I said musingly. ‘They are joined over her brow,’ I went on, ‘and her ear comes straight down to her neck without any rounded lobe. They are two well-considered signs!’
Wat Gordon stopped suddenly, and cried out at me.
‘See here, William Gordon, what mean you by that? What if her eyebrows meet under her chin and her ears hang down like band strings? What is that to you?’
‘Happily nothing!’ said I—for I was patiently paying him out, as it is ever easy to do with a spit-fire like young Lochinvar.
‘Speak plain, Will,’ he cried, ‘or by the Lord I will immediately run you through!’
‘With a spade,’ said I, mocking. ‘Mind, Wat, you are a laird's second gardener now.’
But when I perceived that he was really angry, I hastened to appease him.
‘Joined eyebrows and lobeless ear have been held by learned folk to prefigure some temper, Wat!’ I said.
His brow cleared on an instant.
‘Pshaw!’ he exclaimed, ‘I like a lass with a sparkle. No mim missie for Wat Gordon of Lochinvar, but a lass that keeps you in doubt till the last moment, whether your best wooing will speed you to a kiss or a bodkin-prick—that's the maid for me!’
‘For me, I would e'en take the kiss,’ I said— ‘take it plain!’
‘Tush, slow-coach!’ he said, ‘your Earlstoun blood always did run like so much moss water!’
Now I had borne the burden of the day on the moss of Ayr, and felt that I need not take his scornful word.
‘I have been where other than women's bodkins flashed—aye, ten against a hundred, and this was the only brand that wan through,’ I said, putting my hand on my side. ‘There was small time for kisses then! Ye may kiss your lass gin ye like, about the woods of Balmaghie. As for me, I prefer to ride upon Cameron's flank, on a day when the garments are rolled in blood.’
This I said dourly, for my gall was working hot within me. So far from our first friendship had the clack of foolish tongues brought us. 'Deed, we were but silly boys that needed skelping, but I far the worst, for my head was by nature cooler and I knew better all the while.
‘And so perhaps would I have preferred it,’ answered he gently.
‘Aye,’ said he again, ‘I think it is somewhat late in the day for Wat Gordon of Lochinvar, to have to prove his courage upon his cousin William of Earlstoun. So then, take it from me that but for my oath sworn to the King, it had been more pleasure to ride with you in the charge at Ayrsmoss, than to be bridegroom to any maid soever in the world!’
And at the name of the King, he lifted his worn old countryman's bonnet as nobly and loyally as though it had been the plumed hat, whose feather had been so proudly set that night when he defied heaven and hell to keep him from his tryst beyond the Netherbow.
At the word I stretched out my hand to him.
‘Forgive me, Wat,’ I said, and would have taken his arm, but he moved it a little away for a moment.
‘Pray remember,’ he said grandly, ‘that though I am a jerkined man and handle the mattock in another man's kail yaird,—aye, though I be put to the horn and condemned unheard as a traitor, I am true King's man. Vive le Roi!’
‘Well,’ replied I, ‘so be it, and much good may it do you. At any rate, there is no need to make such a work about it. After all, gin ye be at the horn, it's Guid's truth that ye gied Duke Wellwood's lads some most unmerciful jags aneath the ribs!’
While thus we snarled and fought between ourselves, the very strife of our tongues made the legs go faster, and we drew southward between the two lochs, Ken and Grenoch, crossing over the Black Water and leaving the Duchrae behind. And this made me very wae, to mind the days that we had there, with that brave company which should meet no more on the earth together.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.