Giving Dickens a run for his money, here's a free Christmas story... with a difference.
The packman's pool by S.R.Crockett
‘It's just three days to Christmas,’ said Gray Stiel to Robin as they stood at the black gates of the farm-town and looked up at the threatening December sky.
‘Kirsmas—I think I hae heard tell o' that afore— what is't?’ said Robin Stiel, who was Gray Stiel's nephew and twelve years old.
‘Oh,’ said Gray Stiel, whistling on his smooth-haired little collie, ‘it's a time, juist!’
‘But what is it a time for?’ continued Robin, who was small for his age but mighty persistent.
‘Robin, man, ye are awfu' ignorant; I maun send ye to the schule,’ said Gray Stiel, who had been as far as Lockerby Lamb Fair and once met an Englishman. ‘Christmas is a time when folk hae mair to eat than they ken what to do wi', and mair to drink than is guid for them.’
‘O Lord,’ groaned Robin, ‘I wuss Kirsmas wad come to the Nethertoun. I'm no mindin' what I hae to drink. There's naething sae slockenin' as cauld water, but to hae mair than ye can eat, it's just heeven to think on!’
Gray Stiel sighed, and for a moment his face looked a little weary. He too did not know what it was to have more to eat than left him hungry when it was gone. And, to tell the truth, he did not care much. For he had grown indurated to a brave, brisk, hard life at the hill farm of Nethertoun among the wild hills of Galloway. He had been fourteen years herd to Ralph Edgar of the House of Folds, commonly known as ‘Hoppety-Skip’ from a hobbling way of walking he had, through his leg having once been put out of joint (it was said by an indignant former herd), and he now knew that he would not make a fortune in the service of his present master.
Gray had thought it was a fine thing when he was a younger man to get such a place, the sole charge of as fine a ‘hill’ as there was in all Galloway, a cow's grass, one lamb in every two-score of those drafted off the farm at selling time, and five-and-twenty pounds in wages. Gray Stiel at that time was twenty-four years of age and sanguine.
He was in love, too, and hoped that this ‘doing for himself’ would bring him quickly to the goal of his hopes. But after the first successful season a series of backward unkindly years had smitten him sore. There were late snowstorms, into which the young lambs were born only to die. He himself was stricken with a pleurisy which cut like a knife into his flesh each time he mounted a brae. But still he struggled on, with hope upspringing in the loyal faithful heart of him. Gray Stiel was true steel.
But yet sorer things to bear struck him. In one year his father died, his mother, left penniless, aged and infirm, came to live with him, bringing one Robin, a baby, the son of Allan, Gray Stiel's elder brother, who had levanted into parts unknown out of the reach of his responsibilities. Then one week after she had come to her son's house, she woke wailing in the dawn with a great and strange fear upon her. She was blind. Something had snapped after long wearing pain in her eyeballs—snapped suddenly and without warning. And so she became a burden upon Gray, and wearied his life out by telling him so—which, indeed, was his greatest burden.
With his own hands he had to dress her, and lead her about the house. He was nurse to little Robin, carrying him often to the hills with him in the nook of his plaid, or in bad weather taking a hasty run down in the mid of the morning to the cot-house to see that all was right within.
Then to show that the blast of misfortune had not blown itself out, the one cow died, and Gray had three miles to walk before he could get a bottle of milk for his two helpless charges, while the road was so rough that oftentimes it was churned into butter in his pocket by the time he got back. After the lambing time it was easier, of course, for then he milked the ewes which happened to lose their lambs. And those who know understand that it is no joke to milk a full-sized old blackface of the mountains—a ‘Snaw-breaker’ and the mother of many.
But Gray Stiel came through the trial, though it handicapped him for life. In the autunm his cunning master offered him an advance upon his wages, part of which he used in buying another cow, and part in paying some outstanding obligations of his father's about which his mother kept up a perpetual craking complaint wearisome to listen to.
Then quite suddenly his sweetheart, Peggy Sinclair, a small farmer's daughter in the low country, married his master, Ralph Edgar, called Hoppety-Skip. She was eighteen years of age and she had been acted on by her people, whose pride was awakened when Hoppety-Skip came a-courting in a dark green gig with lines picked out in red. That the bridegroom was within a few years of seventy made no difference to them, though it did to Peggy, gentility's sacrifice.
For many days Gray Stiel went to the hill with a worse pain in his heart than last winter's stitch of pleurisy. He had never seen Peggy since, though she had come to Nethertoun once or twice with her husband. But on these particular days Gray Stiel had business among his flocks on the remotest hilltops, and if Hoppety-Skip wanted to see him, he could come to seek him.
So the years went on and Robin grew a big boy. The weariful complaining of Gray's mother was suddenly stilled in the tenth year of his herdship at Nethertoun, and the lonely man felt the want acutely. But from that day his heart was set on Robin, the child of his lost brother Allan. It used to be his fear that he would come back and claim his son. Gray Stiel felt sure that Allan could do that, or any other mean thing to which he applied his mind.
So at the yett of Nethertoun, leaning upon the top bar and looking at the dull grey of a sky which presaged snow. Gray Stiel and his nephew Robin stood. Three or four dogs, feeling the need of keeping the blood coursing through their veins that nipping winter morning, tumbled over each other with riotous snapping of teeth, worrying and yelping with their noses in the scruff of each other's necks.
A far-away whistle reached them in the midst of their play, and instantly every dog stopped in the midst of a spring, or was turned to stone with jaws wide open for a snap. Their ears were instantly cocked in the direction of the sound, and a low continuous gur-r-r-ring quivered through each from sharply-pointed nose to twitching tail.
With a great fear in his heart Gray Stiel went to the barn-end and looked down the valley. What he saw made him turn sharply round and bid Robin go into the house and bide there. Whereat the boy, though infinitely curious, obeyed without question. He had but one law, and that was the will of Gray Stiel.
Then Gray took his staff in his hand and went down the glen to face what he felt might be the greatest peril of his life. Upon a rock sat a tall, burly man clad apparently in rags. The toe of one foot peeped through the broken boot. His hair of a sandy grey was short cropped, and his face had an unwholesome prison pallor like half-bleached cloth.
He was drinking raw spirits out of a bottle as the clean muirland nose of his brother told him a hundred yards off
‘Ho, Square-toes!’ he cried, waving the bottle about his head, ‘come and have a drink. You won't — you upsettin' blastie. Well, then, I will, if ye will not. There!’
He swigged off the remainder of the contents without removing the bottle from his lips. Then catching it by the neck he threw it with unsteady aim at one of the circling collies, who, of course, easily evaded the clumsy missile. The bottle smashed against the rock with an ugly sound as Gray Stiel stood face to face with his enemy.
Allan Stiel balanced himself uneasily, lurching a little, and trying to suppress a hiccough. Then he smiled.
‘I have come for my share of the family estate,’ he said, ‘heir, you know. Gray—eldest son of his parents. Where's the cash my father left— mother too? Give me my portion of goods. Master Stay-at-home, or Allan Stiel will soon let ye ken what's what!’
‘Allan,’ said Gray Stiel, ‘well do you know that our father not only left no money but died in debt—not through any fault of his own, poor man. And as for my mother, God rest her, she brought me nothing but the clothes on her back.’
Allan Stiel laughed aloud.
‘Nonsense, man,’ he said, ‘I’ve heard you paid faither's creditors in full, and some o' mine too. That shows ye hae siller. Nae man pays siller that he hasna got. Sae if ye please, nae gammon wi' Allan. Ten pounds ye pay me or I will tak' awa' that callant o' mine to learn my new business. Oh, it's a braw trade!’
There was no need for Gray Stiel to ask what that trade was. The man breathed beggary, theft, and debauchery from polled head to cracked boots. And to think that such an one had a claim upon Robin, and could make him like that!
Gray Stiel drew his breath hard.
‘I havena the siller,’ he said slowly; ‘I havena a pound note i' the hoose!’
‘Then ye ken where to get it,’ retorted his brother, ‘there's your sweetheart, Peggy, married to your rich maister, a young lass wedded to an auld man. She will never refuse a loan to her jo for the sake o' auld lang syne.’
‘I cannot do that!’ said Gray with a gasp.
Allan Stiel swore a great oath, and held up his clenched hand above his head. His prison paleness flushed purple.
‘Then I swear that if ye do not get me that ten pounds by Christmas Day, I will tak' the boy wi' me. It's an awesome-like thing to keep a boy frae his ain faither that has tane a' the trouble o' bringin' him into the world, and noo ye wad hinder him frae learnin’ to earn an honest penny, and to be the staff o' his faither's declinin' years!’
The affectionate parent turned and strode unsteadily down the rough rocky track which led towards the loch. Gray Stiel watched him with wild whirling thoughts in his heart. At the angle of the path Allan stopped and shouted back, ‘Ten o'clock at the Packman's Pool on Christmas mornin', and mind ye hae the siller wi' ye!’
Gray Stiel went back into the house and his collies slunk uneasily after him. Their master ought, they knew, to have been on the hill long ere this. There were not so many hours of daylight left in which to cover so much moss and heather. But still Gray Stiel sat and thought.
Robin, wearied of his book, had risen and gone to the door with his dog Airie. Gray Stiel abruptly bade him come in and sit down. He was not to go out of doors that day while he was on the hill. He was afraid that his brother might yet return.
Then, having locked the door, Gray took the path for the Craig Lee knowes, whence the best general idea of the hill can be got. The sheep, it appeared to him, were all on their several ridges and slopes, and Gray Stiel resolved (as he put it) to ‘leave them to Providence for yae day!’
Then with an abrupt change of direction he struck right across the moorland for Dee fords, conquering the heather and moss-hags with his long shepherd's stride. He was making a bee line for the House of Folds, where dwelt a woman he had never set eyes upon, since she had looked up and told him how much she loved him. But now it was not a time to let any sentimental considerations stand in the way. He must see Peggy Sinclair— he could not bring himself to say the other name by which men called her. And as he spoke the image of Hoppety-Skip, his mean, narrow-visaged grippy master, rose before his eyes with a sense of physical disgust. He stopped and half turned on his heel. No, he could not do it— not even for Robin's sake. And yet the thought of the babe whom he had held in his arms, laying him down in his plaid only that he might milk the ewes, and— yes, it should be done.
It was late in the short winter's afternoon before he reached the House of Folds and asked for ‘the Mistress.’
She came, and at sight of him set hand to her side with a strange little animal cry, something like a weak thing that has been trodden upon.
‘Gray,’ she whispered mechanically, ‘ye hae comed!’ Perhaps she was thinking of the tryst she never kept. At least Gray Stiel was.
Then it was that there came a strange construction into the man's throat. Something seemed to grow so great and hard at the root of his tongue, that he had no words to articulate. Then all at once he noted that it was dark, and he thought of little Robin sitting alone with his dog in the cothouse of Nethertoun. Then words came suddenly to him.
‘I have a sudden call,’ he said; ‘Allan has come back and swears that he will take Robin frae me— and— mak' him a thief like himsel' if I winna gie him ten pounds on Christmas morning!’
There was a pitiful look on the face of the young mistress of the House of Folds and her hand sought her throat, wavering upwards like a little detached flame from a fire of green wood. ‘Oh, I havena a shilling. Gray,’ she whispered, ‘he—he winna— And oh, Gray, it was a' my faither!’
At that moment from the little parlour there came the sound of a kind of skipping patter as if a large dog had leaped down from a chest upon the bare wooden floor. And the girl involuntarily withdrew further from the door, as it were, shrinking within herself.
‘Wha's there— wha's there?’ cried a high-pitched, querulous voice, ‘what for canna ye come in, wha-ever ye are? Stiel—Stiel! What's wrang aboot Nethertoun? Are ony o' the sheep deid? Dinna say that the steadin's on fire?’
Then he turned to his wife.
‘Gang in there,’ he said, as he would have spoken to a dog, glancing over his deformed shoulder at her with an ugly look on his face, strange under his crown of reverend hair.
‘Lend ye ten pounds to gie to your ill-set brither — my bonny pound notes that I hae worked sae hard for!’ he screamed when he understood. ‘Gray Stiel, do ye think I hae gane crazy? And ye hae no been that fast in payin' back what ye owe me already, that I should fling awa' ten pounds, for you and your brither to waste in drink an' debauchery!’
‘To keep the boy—and what for should ye keep the boy? I wat ye hae wasted mair on that boy than wad hae paid me my legal debt ten times ower! Na, na, Gray, gang your ways back, and let the wean gang to his faither. That's aye a mouth the less to be fed aff the Nethertoun! And get a strong laddie that will be some use to ye on the hill. Guid-nicht to ye. And mind, dinna leave your hill and my sheep on ony mair siccan daft errands! Ay, or you and me will quarrel, Gray!’
The door slammed to and Gray Stiel was left without in the darkness gripping his hands to keep them from taking hold of the miser's scraggy neck. And while Peggy, the wife of Hoppety-Skip, lay all night awake thinking of Gray Stiel and his trouble, hardly once did Gray Stiel think of her. For all his mind was on Robin, the boy whom he must deliver into his father's hand on the morning of Christmas,—the day when Happiness came to the whole earth.
And on the twenty-fifth day of December Robin woke late to see through the curtains of his bed a strange sight. His uncle Gray was taking down the old gun off the wall— the gun with the long single barrel which had not been fired for many a year. He cleaned it carefully, and then as carefully loaded it, measuring the powder in the hollow of his hand and taking care with the wadding and something else that was certainly not the lead pellets he used for rabbit-shooting. And the face of Gray Stiel was as the face of the dead, for he had not slept since he had met with his brother Allan three days before.
Then drawing an ancient web purse from a worm-eaten desk, sole relic of the former better estate of the family, he counted out seventeen shillings and nine pennies, in silver and copper—all his worldly possessions. It was with a somewhat grim look that he thrust this into his pocket, and taking in hand the alternative to the seventeen-and-ninepence, he went out on tiptoe.
Robin drew aside the curtain and saw him striding away down towards the loch through the falling snow. That was why Robin had slept so long. It was after nine o'clock of the day, but the snow had been falling all night and still continued. His uncle sank nearly to the knees in it. Poor Uncle Gray—Robin thought—to be obliged to go out in such weather. But again, perhaps he had seen a deer on the side of Craig Lee, and was only going to try for a shot.
That might be God's Christmas gift. Robin had once tasted venison and the flavour remained with him yet.
Gray Stiel came of a race which loves not murder, but is not averse to slaying in a just cause. And it was with no thought of the consequences to himself that he resolved that upon no consideration would he deliver Robin to his father. The seventeen-and-ninepence— yes, or—that which he had dropped into the old musket! His brother should have his choice of these two—but not Robin.
The snow fell softly, whisperingly. It was powdery with frost, and slid off the plumy branches of the fir trees with a hushing sound. There— there was the Packman's Pool, dead black amid a perfection of whiteness.
A mist as of blood ran redly across Gray Stiel's eyes. His ears drummed and he gripped the old gun that had been his father's. He could feel his heart beating in his throat. He knit his brows, and tried hard to collect himself, and even to con the speech he had resolved to make to Allan, his brother.
Yet, as he approached, there was no Allan to be seen— an empty bottle winked at him with one black eye from under a hoary eyelid of snow. Beyond, on the edge of the pool, there was a curious mound of snow hunched together.
Something in the shape took Gray Stiel by the heart. He uttered a hoarse cry, and dropping his gun he ran forward and laid his hand upon the thing.
It was his brother, frozen dead, all his evil days and evil deeds covered with the spotless righteousness of the snow.
And Gray Stiel fell on his knees and lifted up his hands in thankfulness to heaven that the sin of Cain was not to be his that bitter Christmas Day.
And away in the little cothouse Robin, for whose unconscious sake certain things might have been done, drew in a creepie stool to his porridge and milk with another thankful heart.
‘So this is Christmas Day,’ he said, ‘and in England where they hae a' the siller they want, folk get presents, and grand gifts, and as muckle as ever they can eat?’
He took one spoonful and then, recollecting that he had forgotten to say grace, he reverently took off his bonnet and asked a blessing.
Then he took another spoonful.
‘But after a',’ he added thankfully, ‘Christmas or no Christmas, porridge is hard to beat!’
But though he knew it not, out by the Packman's Pool, God had placed the best Christmas gift that could have come to the cothouse of Nethertoun, or into the life of young Robin Stiel, the nephew of one Gray, a brave man of that name. But that is not the end of the story. Other things even more interesting occurred after the death of Hoppety-Skip, which happened also before that Christmas snow melted.
For death as well as life is the gift of God.
For the ebook edition of the S.R.Crockett anthology 'A Cameronian Christmas and other Winters Tales' click HERE. Galloway Raiders members can get this free with the code issued in the December Raiders125 e-newsletter. For the rest of you, it's discounted from the Amazon price until the end of the month.
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