Undoubtedly Anne Barraclough had her griefs. She lived in a hovel which no other in Creelport would condescend to inhabit. It was set far back against the cliff, a dry and crumbly limestone, with cracks in it which opened mysteriously at night and shut during the day equally without reason.
But Anne Barraclough had other sorrows—a son and a husband. Sam, the son, had early despised authority, run with the wild lads from the mills,— played tricks with his master's till, narrowly escaped the jail, and, as the saying went, would have broken his mother's heart, but for the trifling circumstance that that had been broken before— by her husband, Bob Barraclough, poacher, pugilist, breeder of bull pups, pigeon flier and fancier, and, in fact, everything except what he had been brought up to be, the sober hard-working mason his father had been before him.
Nevertheless, Robert Barraclough was still a landlord. His property was, however, confined to the small ex-stable, which a misdirected ingenuity had converted into a shebeen and unlicensed lodging-house for tramps and other free-living gentlemen of undefined professions who objected to being looked up at four in the morning by the police in the regular lodgings of Creelport.
Anne Barraclough was a hard-featured, wizened woman, with a head that seemed always drawn a little back as if to escape a blow. And indeed Bob, her husband, let her know, as he said, ‘what was the law of England in the matter of wives,’ when he came home after being turned out of the ‘Blue Posts’ or the ‘Anchor’ for quarrelsomeness in his cups.
He beat her if he found guests drinking with Anne in their slovenly barrack. Why should she be sitting there and enjoying life while he had been turned out of two public-houses into the raw night air— and him with such a delicate chest. He beat her equally if there were no guests in the shebeen, and, by consequence, no money to furnish him out with on the following morning. Anne was idle, good-for-nothing, lazy, untruthful, and worse than all, she had money on the quiet, which she was keeping from her lawful husband. She was making a purse for herself. For all which reasons, Anne Barraclough must be corrected. And when Bob Barraclough was incapacitated for the performance of the duty, his son Sam kindly undertook it for him.
Yes, her own son. And him she feared most. For he was more often sober. He was the more cruel, and Anne went in terror lest she should one day reveal her secret hiding-place.
Yes, it was all true. Anne Barraclough at fifty was deceitful, idle, hopeless for herself, and also—she had money, which, with a great carefulness, she was keeping away from her loving relatives—from Bob, her husband, who beat her, and from Sam, her son, who aided and abetted his father so to do.
Anne Barraclough did not drink. She could not afford it. She would have liked dearly to drown her sorrows, and she had many bottles of a certain cheap Water of Lethe, miscalled whisky, stored away at the back of the old stable under the crumbly limestone. But all that was to sell, drop by drop, glass by glass, counted and reckoned—so many pieces of brown money, so many small silver bits—some to be beaten out of her by Bob, some to be yielded to Sam to keep him quiet and decently incapable of observation. But most—especially the silver ones, little and white and jingly, were to be hid away in another place— for another purpose.
What purpose? Ah, but that was Anne Barraclough's secret. Nearly all the world— that is to say all Creelport— looked askance on Anne. The Barracloughs were the worst people in its worst district.
‘Down in Little Dublin,’ was the standing direction to their neighbourhood, ‘as far down as you can, and the farther down the street you go the tougher it gets. The Barracloughs live in the last house.
After IT happened, all Creelport remarked, that they had always known it of Anne Barraclough.
‘She has the look of a murderess!’ they said, as usual, exceeding wise after the event.
‘She looks secret!’ the jurymen whispered in the court when they condemned her, and old Bowlby, of the ‘Blue Posts’ who had lost a steady customer in the deceased, voted steadily against any recommendation to mercy.
But this is going too fast. It was the revealing of Anne Barraclough's secret which led to the tragedy, and so that must come first.
Yet it was no dark and deadly secret after all. Only that, long before the day of Bob Barraclough, Anne, his wife, had once been young and happy. He had loved her— he had told her how much along by the harbour wall, at the place where there are the fewest lights, and after they were married he had taken her to live away in the great seaport to which, from the deserted pier of Creelport, they could see the vessels passing up channel in a long procession.
Then he had died—died far away from her, and, when his mate called in to tell her of it, and ask if she wanted his chest sent— there was a little baby girl asleep in a borrowed cradle.
These things Bob Barraclough never knew, and Anne, his wife, was afraid that he would find out. That was her secret.
But up yonder in Doggermouth there was a slim girlish pupil-teacher who was to enter the Normal College in November, and people wondered how a mere suburban lodging-house keeper, depending on the poorer class of summer visitors, could afford such an extravagance.
‘It was a folly of Mrs. Smith's,’ the neighbours said over their neighbourly tea. But then Widow Smith had always been foolish about that girl. They hoped that the money was honestly come by, that was all.
And Lily Smith going to and fro every day— morning at nine, afternoon at ten minutes past four — to the Doggermouth Public School—also thought it was very kind of Aunt Smith, the only relative she had ever known. So, indeed, it was, for though Anne Barraclough's secret was safe behind Widow Smith's mended spectacles, that good old woman added many little luxuries according to her means, and perhaps a little beyond, to the monthly remittance which came so regularly from the Creelport post office.
Now, Lily Smith was not by any means an ordinary sweet, pretty, young woman. She had a mind of her own, as her father had when he took to running arms and ammunition to the Revolutionists in Cuba and died of it with his back to a wall. Just a little brown-skinned thing, with a capable mouth, a firm chin, and dark grey eyes which glittered quietly under long lashes whenever the head mistress, Miss Priscilla Fisher, rebuked her for what was noways her fault.
Having once or twice encountered this steely and most arresting look, certain young men pupil-teachers, arrogant and over well-informed young men, to whom all knowledge was an open book, very discreetly left her alone.
‘That Lily Smith,’ said Ernest Towers, savagely, as he experimented gingerly with his first cigar, ‘has no more feeling than a cat!’
He was wrong, but it was as well for him that he did not persevere so as to find out. But all that the world saw of Miss Lily Smith was only a trim, grey-gowned, brown-cheeked maiden tripping like a mouse daintily along the doubtful cleanliness of the Doggermouth pavements, half a dozen pupils of doubtful cleanliness tagging about her skirts.
Only a science master, recently appointed to the new secondary school over the way, took very much notice of her, and he merely from a window. She had a sweet smile, and he liked the quick way she had of smacking the little urchins when they muddied her dove-grey dress. This always made him laugh, and as there was not much to laugh at in Doggermouth, Mr. Henry Hurst, B.Sc, was grateful, and at ten minutes to nine and ten minutes after four each day, he was sure to be at his window, carefully examining a test-tube.
Curiously enough, in order rightly to manipulate a test-tube, it is necessary to arrange one's hair before a mirror, and to make certain of a cunning little upward crook of the moustache upon which Mr. Henry Hurst prided himself as upon a scientific discovery. The left side pleased him best, and so he always held the test-tube sideways to the light, as he examined it carefully, in approved laboratory fashion.
He thought that little brown Miss Lily was quite unconscious of all this, and so most people would have thought too. Yet she noticed him the very first time, remarked the device of the test-tube the second, and the third she kept her head down and muttered ‘impudence,’ as she walked a little more smartly past.
On this occasion she gave dirty Johnny Sams an extra shake for pulling at her portfolio, and perhaps in part he served as whipping boy to the intrusive science master across the way. But still, being a woman (or on her way thither), in a week or two it began to warm her heart to remember that her passing made a difference to somebody. In a month she would bitterly have resented his absence, and one day when she missed seeing him by the least fraction of a second, her temper was the object of comment to her entire division of the infant class.
However, the prize distribution would take place that day week, and (first) Miss Lily Smith, and (second) Mr. Henry Hurst, B.Sc, reflected that on that day they would be certain to meet face to face.
The great day of the prize-giving, as usual, stirred all Doggermouth, and happened also as usual on the day before Christmas. For the first time since Lily Smith was a little girl, the Creelport registered letter for Aunt Smith failed to arrive at the cottage.
‘Something wrong at the office,’ said the widow grumblingly; ‘them young maids there be surely more concerned with their beaux, than to serve Thomas out his letters to fetch, as is their duty!’
But the reason for the non-arrival of the registered letter was other than the beaux of the girl-clerks of Doggermouth. It concerned the Barracloughs, of Creelport, and in especial Anne, wife of Bob and mother of Sam— mother, too, of Widow Smith's Lily.
Barraclough's shebeen, down at the tough fag-end of Little Dublin, had been in the way of luck—that is, of such luck as came its way. There had been a strike, and the dock labourers thrown out of employment spent largely upon the fiery fusil-oil and raw spirit concealed at the back among the crumbling limestone. The liquor seemed indeed, more than ordinarily potent. Headaches were more rapidly produced, and even strong men, in that close dry-smelling atmosphere, experienced strange swimmings in the head. There was no doubt about the strength of Bob Barraclough's whisky.
Yet Anne Barraclough hardly did herself justice, for a reason. It was not the responsibility of so much money in her deep under-pocket, which she carried half-full of saw-dust to keep the coins from jingling. It was that she had a little paragraph in her breast, cut from a Doggermouth paper, left by a transient customer on the previous evening.
‘Doggermouth Public Schools. — The annual Christmas prize-giving, inaugurated several years ago by our local school board, and which has in the past owed so much to the liberality of its generous chairman, Mr. Trophimus Gane, will take place in the large hall of the Technical School on Friday, December 24th, at three o'clock, Mr. Trophimus Gane, J.P., in the chair.
‘In addition to the interest usual on such an occasion, parents and friends will be treated to the performances of a choir, selected from all the infant schools, trained and conducted by Miss Lily Smith, who has recently so highly distinguished herself at the entrance examination of the Metropolitan Normal College, where she took a first place. Mrs. Gane will preside at the harmonium, the gift of her husband, Mr. Trophimus Gane, J.P., chairman of the board.’
The last noisy guests had departed from Barraclough's on the evening of Thursday, December 23rd. It had been a time of profit, and Anne had a goodly sum to put away. She lingered, however, over the contents of an old pocket-book which she kept (as least likely to be disturbed) within the rough covers of the Barracloughs' family Bible. She knew that for the present Bob, her husband, was harmless. She could see him extended, toes pointing to the ceiling, on the floor. She could hear him snore. She thought that Sam, her son, was out on one of his mysterious excursions.
Full of the pleasure of being alone, she took out an old pocket-book and gazed in rapture at the contents. There were two or three baby photographs, features and sex equally indistinguishable. Then came a girl—dimpling in corkscrew curls, with eyes like black beads—then a baptismal certificate, a school group, and a collection of such announcements as that quoted above, with the name of Lily Smith, underlined, always prominent among the prize takers. There were also many letters from Widow Smith, much in the same words, acknowledging a monthly remittance.
‘Lily is as good a girl as any mother need wish, and no trouble, eggsept shows some temper with her teething.’ As who indeed would not.
Anne Barraclough was smiling at this last. A tear was slowly irrigating a furrow on her cheek, and pushing its way towards the angle of her chin, when suddenly a shaky hand, accustomed to larceny, shot over her shoulder from behind and snatched the pocket-book while the thief laughed a triumphant laugh.
‘I have it this time, mother,’ said Sam Barraclough, and he laughed again as she screamed in fear. He repulsed her several times, as she desperately strove to regain her treasure. Then he lay back on a wooden settle and kept her off with his foot, while he despoiled the pockets, rooting and nosing through them like a beast o’ prey, as, indeed, he was.
‘Miss Lily Smith,’ he cried, ‘who's she? A marriage certificate—yours, old lady? A sister, too, have I? So that's where the money goes to, and tomorrow is the school prize-giving! So nice. Well, I'll be there, and I'll see Lily Smith. I'll tell her where the money comes from that's made a fine Miss of her. She goes to no Normal College, not if I know it! Normal College indeed—doing me out of my rights! Ain't I Sam Barraclough? Isn't the money all made at Barraclough's? Well, then—out with it, mother. Show me where you keep the shiners. Give me halves and I'll never trouble you more. You won't, eh? Then, by God, I'm off to Doggermouth Public School tomorrow— it's public, that's one comfort, and I'll cry out your shame and hers— before all them kids and teachers—some o' them sweet on Miss Lily, no doubt— ay, and before that precious school board that's so fond of her— yaw, that I will!’
‘I will kill you first!’ said Anne Barraclough, the same glitter which lay so stilly under her daughter's lashes coming into her eyes as she looked at her son.
‘Show me where you keep the money, then, or I will,’ he threatened.
Anne Barraclough appeared to waver. Then, suddenly taking a resolve, she pointed with her hand.
‘In there,’ she stammered, ‘in there, Sam— in one of them cracks of the limestone.’
‘What,’ cried Sam, ‘between our cellar and the Provost's lime-kiln?’
‘Yes,’ said his mother softly, ‘just at the place where it always feels warm when you put your hand against the wall.’
‘Gimme a pick,’ said Sam; ‘I'll have it out, every penny of it.’
He laid down the pocket-book, in his eagerness to search for the hoard. She snatched it up, and was through the door like a shadow.
The Select Infant Choir of the Doggermouth Public Schools, trained by Senior Pupil Teacher Lily Smith, was singing its closing hymn--
‘Lord, a little band and lowly. We are come to sing to Thee—’
The science master was crooking the left side of his moustache, and watching the brown cheek of the conductress flush with pride and pleasure, when he saw two policemen enter. They looked a moment, and then the taller laid a hand on the arm of a tired woman in rusty black sitting by the door, a stranger in the neighbourhood. He stooped and whispered something in her ear.
‘What for?’ she asked simply.
‘Murder,’ he answered as quietly; ‘they are both dead.’
‘Who?’ said Anne Barraclough, her eyes on his face.
‘Your son and your husband!’ said the policeman.
‘Thank God,’ said Ann, rising with a smile; ‘I'll go willin'!’
It was long remembered as the most mysterious and difficult criminal case ever adjudged at Doggermouth assizes.
Briefly the facts as presented to the jury were these. Anne Barraclough had had a violent quarrel with her son and her husband, both of whom brutalised her mercilessly. She fled from the house on the night of the 23rd of December. On the morning of the 24th, both were found lying dead, Sam in the limestone cellar still grasping a pick, and a considerable sum of money in silver scattered about. Nearer the door Bob Barraclough was dead, lying on his back on the floor.
The cause of the quarrel probably concerned a child born to a previous marriage, to whom it would be proved that Anne Barraclough was in the habit of remitting considerable sums monthly. The medical experts diagnosed death by poisoning, but failed to find traces of anything specific. But the woman was a known bad character, a shebeener, while raw spirit, chemicals, and dried herbs were found on the premises.
Anne Barraclough herself seemed dazed, and attempted no particular defence. Her official advocate, appointed by the judge, essayed the usual appeal to the feelings, but she seemed solely anxious for him to finish. She was listening for a name— that of Lily Smith. It was not mentioned in court, but was soon afterwards dragged into publicity by an enlightened and up-to-date journalism.
Twenty years was Anne Barraclough's portion, and, as she had said to the policeman who arrested her, she ‘went willin'.’
She would have gone less willingly, however, had she known that Lily lost her place the week after, and that she was left without means to take up her course at the Normal College.
But Mr. Henry Hurst, B.Sc, promptly offered her another situation. He even changed his own line of life in order to do it, resuming his original role of chemist to a paper factory. Lily must go with him to Polwarth Mills as his wife. She refused time and again. After what had been printed in the papers about her mother, she would be a shame to no man. But Mr. Henry Hurst was nothing if not scientific. He said that it mattered not a straw to him who or what was her mother or her father, or her stepfather, It was the little brown thing with the flush on her cheek that he wanted.
And so, necessarily, he got her, flush and all.
It was not quite two years before the matter was cleared up. Barraclough's passed to other tenants, a shade more reputable. But it was not long before both husband and wife were found in an unconscious state, one on the threshold of the limestone cave, the other within. The wife died, the husband barely pulled through. The symptoms of poisoning were identical with those present in the Barraclough case. Then there came the long-refused investigation. It was a close day when the investigators arrived, among them Mr. Henry Hurst, still B.Sc, though in strict fact no longer a bachelor.
It chanced that one of the doctors had brought a dog, which, tired of the vapid boredom of the day, and the lack of canine society, stretched himself down on the threshold of the limestone cellar which had been Anne Barraclough's treasure house. By and by his master called. The dog slept on. He kicked him sharply in the ribs, equally in vain. The dog was dead. And Henry Hurst, nosing and searching about the cracks in the limestone, discovered the secret.
There was a lime-kiln on the other side of the little crag into which the original Barraclough had burrowed. As often as it was in action, after Sam's explorations with the pick, deadly carbonic acid gas poured through the cracks, and falling to the floor, mounted knee-deep or higher, an unseen pool of death to all that breathed it.
Thus had died Bob Barraclough and his son Sam, the latter kneeling in the pursuit of the threepenny bits which rolled about the floor.
When they took Anne out of the prison and told her that she was free, she said it did not matter so long as they were dead. Money was given her in the name of the Crown, to make amends for the terrible miscarriage of justice. But Anne only said, ‘It is very kind of the gentlemen. Send it to the Widow Smith at Doggermouth! Thank God, I can always earn my livin'!’ And so, for the second time, Anne Barraclough went out into the darkness, this time to be heard of no more.
But she kept the pocket-book, and looked at its contents each morning and night — the baby photographs, the stalky girl in corkscrew curls and all.
‘I am glad little Lily is married,’ she said; ‘he is a good man, they say. God keep such as I from ever coming between them!’
I am indebted for the facts and the dramatic conclusion of this story to Mr. Albert Batailie's excellent report of the Maison du Four à Chaux case in the 1896 volume of his Causes Criminelles et Mondaines published in Paris by Dentu.—S. R. C.
THE PACKMAN'S POOL
‘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.
Story from The Bloom o' the Heather (1908)
Peter Peatrack, minister of the parish of Brinkilly, was a just man. Also an hard. He had argued himself out of friendship with all his neighbours. The very Presbytery of Biteangry had had enough of Peter. They even intimated through their clerk that Peter's attendance at the Presbytery at nine o'clock on the first Monday of every month would not be insisted upon. The brethren recognised that Brinkilly lay so far away, across so many dangerous waters, in such an out-of-the-way situation, that they could not expect to be favoured with the sight of the Reverend Peter Peatrack's countenance more often than, say, twice a year at the outside.
But Peter thought otherwise.
He had not much liked to go there before. He had no mind to jog on his round-barrelled sheltie all these weary miles to the town, and then pay the landlord of the Cross Keys sixpence for stabling, as well as provide a dinner for himself at the town of Biteangry, where the Presbytery dined copiously together after the transaction of business.
But now, since the Presbytery did not want him to go, Peter declared to his meek, inoffensive wife that he would not miss a single Presbytery day, not for all the tiends and tithes of the three Lothians three times augmented.
So Peter went, and his brethren moaned in spirit and were heavily afflicted. For Peter remorselessly lectured them on every subject that occurred to him, making his great brawny ploughman's hands crack together, as if he had resolved to take strength of arm to the Moderator's head in case of the least contradiction.
Peter Peatrack's strong point was consistency— consistency, and the practice of the Church of Scotland.
‘Sir,’ he would say, addressing the Moderator in stentorian tones, ‘I am not aware what you might have meant when you took your ordination vows. But for myself, I resolved to oppose, to the extent of my humble abeelity, all innovations and creeping seditions, a-a-ll seductions of any Popish or Episcopalian sor-rt, by whomsoever promoted!’
And Peter kept his word.
The singing of mere human hymns within the bounds of the Presbytery, even at family worship or privately in families, was a matter to be dealt with rigorously. No man, said Peter, could tell where the like of that would end. They would presently find themselves sitting alongside of the Great Scarlet Woman on the Seven Hills. Only ‘Woman’ was not the word that Peter used.
Organs Peter could not away with. He could not even speak connectedly on that subject, but spluttered and gasped till the assembled brethren feared (and hoped) an apoplectic fit.
Now, the Presbytery of Biteangry was not a particularly large one, though it included one or two large and influential kirks. Specially Peter detested the two town congregations of his neighbouring metropolis of Biteangry, distant from him only about six miles by the moor road.
One of these was a quoad sacra church — that is something of the nature of a chapel-of-ease, built for the accommodation of the rich folk of the upper end of Biteangry, who found the mile of muddy road between them and their parish kirk in the hollow down by the loch to be too much for their wives and children. At least, they put the blame on the wives and children.
This rich church of St. Bride's had recently called to itself a new minister. He was a young man, tall, with fair hair and a winning smile. Peter Peatrack hated him on sight, and when the Reverend Horace Glasgow first stated some of his college-bred opinions on ‘winning the masses’ and ‘attractive services,’ Peter Peatrack had to be held in his seat by two of the most burly of the Presbytery to prevent his destroying the rash young man on the spot.
After that the noise in the Presbytery of Biteangry could generally be heard two streets off, when Peter was on the war-path against ‘innovations.’
‘Those of us who have the honour and the privilege of being ministers o' pairishes, are well aware.’
Peter would begin his harangues, so as to exclude the young minister of St. Bride's from any part or lot in the matter. But one day— it was the first Monday of December—the raw, bony figure of Peter Peatrack could be seen driving the steamy easter haar before him as he flapped his way Presbyterywards with a printed sheet in his hand, his long arms going like old-fashioned steamboat paddles.
The Moderator was closing his prayer when Peter burst in, and hardly was the ‘Amen’ out of his mouth before Peter, standing at his side, clapped the ‘poster’ down on the table beneath his very nose.
‘It has come at last,’ he cried, ‘the abomination of desola-a-tion, the Mark of the Beast— the fingermark of the Woman that sitteth on the Seven Hills and snuffeth up the bluid of the Saunts— there it is before ye. Let the clerk read it, and then will I tak' up my testimony!’
The Moderator mildly suggested that Peter was hardly in order, in so far as it was usual for the clerk first to read the minutes of the previous meeting.
‘Maister Modera-a-tur, is this a time to be yawpin' aboot Puir's Boxes and Life-off-Wark when the foundations o' the faith stand no longer sure, and when there is amongst us a young man, caa'in' himsel' a minister o' the Kirk o' Scotland, that is for denyin' the Confession, and going to and fro on the earth daubing wi' untempered mortar — I speak of the Reverend Horace Glasgow, M.A-A-A.’ (this with fine scorn), ‘of the bit chapel-o'-ease up the hill yonder that they caa' St. Bride's!’
The object of all this sat calm and quiet. He knew that there would be a row presbyterial over his Christmas services, the first in the district, especially over the evening Service of Praise.
‘The church richly decorated’— 'music by a select choir'—'the o-a-a-rginist, Mr. H. A. Gregg, Mus. Bac, will preside at the o-a-a-r-gan!’ quoted Peter Peatrack, at last finding a subject to which he could do justice. ‘Is this a Rood Fair that has come amang us? Is it a play-actin' booth, wi' a hand-organ in the pulpit and a puggy-monkey on the tap to tak' up the silver collection at the door?’
So for half an hour Peter the Objector invoked the shades of John Knox, or the ‘Saunted Martyrs,’ of the ‘great fa-athers of the Kirk,’ and then, suddenly finding himself without support, he snatched up the offending proclamation from the table, ground it under his heel, and took himself off down the street, making the doors of the Presbytery Hall clang after him.
That was Monday, and during the week every parishioner within the bounds received notice that their attendance was requested in the Parish Kirk of Brinkilly on the evening of Thursday the 24th of December (falsely called Christmas Eve) in order to hear a lecture by their minister, the Rev. Peter Peatrack, in which he would prove from Scripture, and from the fathers of the Early Church,—quoting and translating the original tongues,— how utterly impossible it was that the birth of our Saviour could have happened on that day, and also that the celebration of times and seasons was only a mockery and a mummery—a shred of Black Prelacy and a rag of Rome.
Many of these circulars were addressed by Elspeth and Patience Peatrack— and Patience (the younger of the two sisters, and a born mischief) saw to it that one was carefully forwarded to the Rev. Horace Glasgow, St. Bride's Manse, Biteangry. As the young lady was writing to the young gentleman anyway, this is perhaps not so great a wonder as it may seem at first sight. Patience had met him at her aunt's in Edinburgh during the previous winter, but (and this shows the sad laxity of modern principles) she had not thought it worth while to say anything to her father on the subject. It was her mother who received the letters, and trembled all the time she kept them in her side pocket.
As these two estimable young ladies folded up and addressed their father's lecture notices, they smiled one to the other. Such young things they were— so innocent, brought up in a moorland parish in which their father was the chief prop of purity of worship and the self-appointed guardian of the ark presbyterial.
Christmas Eve came. Willie Faddle, the ancient beadle of the Kirk of Brinkilly, grumbling and coughing as usual, went his rounds, lighting the drippy tallow candles which still served to illuminate the Parish Kirk in the last decade of the nineteenth century.
‘What's come to the minister?’ he growled. ‘A lecture on a week nicht! Wha in Brinkilly cares a curse aboot Kirsmas? Had it been the New Year noo, and a roarin' First-footin' ploy wi' a score o' honest whusky bottles to be uncorked at twal' o' the clock— there wad hae been mair sense in that, and it wad hae brocht oot a' Brinkilly as wan man. But I misdoubt me sair that there will be a thin kirk and a thinner collection this nicht.’
At this moment the pretty head of Patience Peatrack, the minister's younger daughter, was thrust in at the door. She was hatted, and hooded, and boa-ed, and muffed against a winter night's worst inclemency.
‘Ay, Willie,’ she said, ‘are you there? Tell my father when he comes that he is not to wait for us—we may be a little late!’
And with that she was gone. Willie went to the door, and cocked a rather deaf ear in the direction of the high road.
‘Deevil tak' my auld deaf lugs,’ he growled, ‘but if that wasna the clatter o' the minister's powny in the licht cart may I never lift elsin to shoe-leather again!’
Then he went back to the methodical trimming and lighting of the candles, ranged in their ‘scoops’ along the walls, shaking his head, and muttering.
‘Weel, it's nane o' your business, Wullie lad, and she is a feat bit lass. But that there's some ploy on, mair than the minister kens o', I'll wager three pair o' guid single-sole shoon.’
After that there was another long wait. It passed the hour of eight, for which the lecture had been announced, but no one entered the kirk. With his long-handled snuffers in his fingers, Willie resolutely took his stand by the door, ready for all emergencies. At last he heard an energetic scuffling of feet, and such a kicking of snow off against the wall that the very lights within quivered on the sconces.
Only Peter Peatrack could have done that, and the beadle hurried out to receive his hierarchical superior.
‘Is there muckle room left?’ demanded the minister, who had spent his day in wondering if he should provide extra seats from the schoolroom. They could easily be placed along the aisles.
‘There's no' a livin' sowl in the kirk!’ quoth Willie, the beadle.
The minister made one bound into the interior, and faced the yawning vault and the guttering candles with a sudden consternation. It was the end of all things.
‘And where are my daughters?’ he cried, with a strange false note in his voice, as if it were about to break.
‘Weel,’ said Willie, ‘Miss Patience lookit in a whilie syne, and bade me tell ye when ye cam' no' to wait for them. They micht very likely be late!’
Peter Peatrack stood a moment stunned. His eyebrows drew together ominously.
‘And was that all?’ he demanded, laying sudden hold of his kirk-officer's garments as if he feared he too would escape.
‘Leave go, minister,’ cried Willie Faddle; ‘ye are rivin' the lapels off my Sunday coat, and though it's time I had anither yin, I am no' likely to get it. There is something mair.’
‘What is it—I charge you—speak?’ said the minister huskily.
‘Weel,’ said Willie, ‘dinna chairge the candle-snuffers doon my throat and I'll tell ye. Ye ken I'm an auld deaf man, minister, but when the wind is in the west, and I get my lug in the richt direction.’
‘Speak plain, or I'll rive the truth oot o' ye, ye dodderin' auld docken leaf!’
‘Aweel,’ said Willie, ‘wha wadna dodder when ye are shakin' them like John Muir's terrier when he grips a rat? But I'll tell ye—oh, I'll tell ye plain, minister. I thocht I heard Donald's feet in the cairt drivin' awa' in the direction o' Biteangry directly after Miss Patience gaed oot o' the kirk. But then I'm a dodderin' auld docken leaf, ye ken, minister, and ye manna mind what I say!’
With one great leap the parish minister of Brinkilly was out of the kirk. He took the graveyard dyke in his stride, and the next moment he was down the road in the direction of St. Bride's.
A score of things which he remembered, but had thought nothing of, now returned to him. His wife was anxious and troubled. Letters had been hidden under aprons at his approach. He had seen books— poetry books—which he certainly had never bought, lying about the house. Why should he? He had been needing a new Turretin for twenty years. Worst of all, there were the strange reticences of his family.
Ah, he had it—they had gone to the Popish festival —to take part in what was little better than a Mass.
Well, they should never enter his house again— NEVER— never — no—never!
But each ‘never’ grew less emphatic, even as it is printed above. After all they were ‘his lassies.’ His heart, hard to all else, narrow and shut in as a toad in a rock crevice, expanded when he heard ‘his lassies’ laugh together. He was proud of them too, proud of their wits and their good looks—though he had never told them so. He would have died first.
But— no, he was resolved. If they had really deserted sound doctrine and gone against his will, on purpose to defy him, to the Christmas Eve celebration at St. Bride's, he would cast them off! Yes, he would—he would!
It was late when he topped the last brae and saw the lighted windows of St. Bride's Kirk, with their illuminated tracery of coloured glass, and heard the solemn tones of the organ playing the people out of the kirk. In spite of the Voluntary, the congregation was already black on the brae when he struck the throng of them. Many knew him. One called him by name. And he heard an indistinct muttering of words that sounded like ‘the minister's daughters— that's their father.’ For the St. Bride's congregation were so respectable and rich that they had to speak English to prove it.
He stumbled into the porch. It was a solid arch of greenery and red berries. Somehow he did not seem to mind this so much now. For there, immediately before him, his two daughters were coming out in the company of a tall young man and a sweet-faced old lady with silver hair.
The young minister of St. Bride's, to whose arm Patience had instinctively attached herself at sight of the white, drawn face of her father, came forward, holding out his hand.
‘This is kind of you, Mr. Peatrack,’ he said. ‘Let me introduce you to my mother. These madcap girls had driven over to see her at our little service; but I am sorry to hear that it was done without your permission. Still more so, because I had made up my mind to come over to the Manse of Brinkilly tomorrow to ask you to give me your daughter— your younger daughter Patience. We love each other, as I daresay you know.’
Here he looked down, while Peter fought first for temper and then for breath.
‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I did not know. Their father— who has loved them all their lives—to his shame, more than he has loved his Maker— is the last person they would think of telling!’
At which the two girls, Elspeth as well as Patience, flew to the old man, and with their arms about his neck hid their faces on his shoulder.
‘We would have told you— we would indeed, father. Only we thought you would be so angry!’
‘So I am—so I am!’ gasped Peter, half choked, and trying to clear himself of the soft arms that clung so tight; ‘your father that carried you on his back when ye were bairns—that has loved ye.’
And here he too had a difficulty with his voice. The girls wept unrestrainedly. The minister of St. Bride's softly shut the outer door of the church, and coming forward, laid his hand on the shoulder of his ancient and presbyterial foe.
‘If there are not many other things we can agree about,’ he said quietly, ‘I think we do agree that they are a pair of naughty girls, and that I do you a good turn in relieving your hands of one of them!’
‘You are taking a sore burden on your shoulders,’ said Peter half relentingly— ‘a lassie that would deceive her ain father— yea, a yoke on your neck shall she be—a rod to afflict you all your days!’
‘She is on your neck at this present moment,’ said the young man, somewhat regretfully, ‘but as for me, I have no objections to bear the yoke— in fact, I am even prepared to kiss the rod.’
The which, the father of Miss Patience smiling a grim approval, he proceeded to do.
And overhead, all suddenly, the Christmas bells rang out.
From The Bloom o' the Heather 1908.
‘Do you mind the wee house o’ Breckonside?’ It was Silver Sand who was speaking, and we were all gathered about the big, open fireplace of Isle Rathan in the frosty gloaming.
‘Mind it!’ cried a voice, quick and indignant as of one having authority, ‘mind it! I heard the tale when I was a lassie, and I never want to hear it mair. It’s eneuch to keep us a’ from sleepin’! We’ll hae nane o’ your stories o’ witches an’ warlocks in my hoose, if ye please, Mr John Faa!
But at this there was, of course, great wonderment among all the younger folk. The lads gathered in closer, where they sat making baskets of plaited willow wands, while the maidens disclaimed their desire to hear any horrible tale –but nevertheless hitched in their chairs closer so that they might not lose a word. They looked over their shoulders whenever the door opened suddenly behind them, and I doubt not, felt pleasurable fears sting them momently in the marrow each time a dog barked.
‘Aweel,’ said Silver Sand quietly, ‘since it’s no your pleasure, Mistress may, we will say nothing more of the wee cot o’ Breckonside, the auld miser Hobby Kinmont, and that puir young lass Elsie, wha was shut up for the space o’ a simmer’s nicht wi’ the terrible Mounster…’
‘Wait till ma mither gangs to the milk-house and then tell us,’ whispered one of the bright-eyed maidens, whose work had power to move the old wanderer’s heart to tell his best tales.
‘Oh, deed,’ laughed the mistress of Isle Rathan, ‘ye can drive on wi’ your tale, Silver Sand. Dinna mak’ a ‘mounster’ o’ me in my ain hoose – but gin the bairns dinna sleep this nicht after haein’ your daft havers dinned in their lugs, you an’ the guidman may e’en bide in the turret chamber wi’ the rats or sleep in the barn gin ye like, for into my kitchen ye dinna come nor lie in bed o’ mine this nicht!’
‘Weel’ said Silver Sand philosophically, ‘I hae spent some time in waur places than either - and wi’ that same guidman o’ yours too, Mistress May. But wi’ your permission, I will tell the tale of ‘How Elsie danced for her life.’’
And this was Silver Sand’s Story
There is no house on Breckonside now (he said), only as ye gang your ways up the brae-face, at the turn of the road where the burn runs bonny and clear down in the dell, and the heather reaches down among the green breckons that give the place its name, ye may see a kind of knowe or hillock, that is, it may be, a thocht greener than the lave. Not one stone is to be seen upon another. The kindly mould is over all. The hemlock and the bluidy fingers (foxglove) grow tall where lovers caaed their cracks by the inglenook, and of all the well-set yaird where the miser grew his lint and dibbled his potatoes, only a single lilac-bush now stands in the corner that overlooks the road.
Now at this lonely yet heartsome place dwelt for many a year auld Hobby Kinmont and his daughter Bell. She had the name of being bonny to look on in her young days, and many a lover come to see the miser’s heiress that would fain have hung up his hat behind the door and taken his seat at Hobby Kinmont’s table as the auld man’s son-in-law.
But auld Hobby was a far seeing carle and not to be cheated by any ‘flairdie’ (blarney).
‘When I hae a want o’ ony guid-sons,’ he would say, ‘I’ll put up a notice in the window or hae it intimated in the kirk!’
Hobby had the name of a warlock, too, and the neighbours used to wonder at the strange noises that were to be heard at mirk-midnicht about the cot of Breckonside, and the lights that gaed wandering athwart the leas. It ‘werna canny’ they said, nor more than decent that Hobby should always have the best lint to make his linen sheets of, the earliest potatoes by a clear fortnight, the cleanest wool whereof to weave his homespun. )For Hobby was a weaver as well as a bonnet-laird on a small scale.)
Above all Hobby had the name of siller, and nothing makes for envy like that, whether in town-street or countryside. ‘Envying and grieving at the guid o’ your neighbour; aye, there ye hae it bairns’ (said Silver Sand, nodding warningly at us to point the moral. The love of siller is the root of all evil, and even the very name of it breeds unkindness and illwill).
But upon a day this Bell Kinmont, that had been counted the richest-tochered lass in seven parishes, settled the matter of a son-in-law for her father without consulting her father. There was a Hieland marching regiment in Dumfries, and squads of them used to tramp here and there through the countryside, airing the braw feathers in their bonnets, and drawing in the young lads to list with them by the glint of their accoutrements, or, maybe, the merry noise of the pipe and drum that went before them and set the pulses jumping.
So with a blythe young Hieland sergeant in His Majesty’s 93rd regiment, MacHamish by name, Bell Kinmont took the road, and the auld men only sat the stiller at his loom and caaed away at the shuttle the harder. And if he could not manage to weave himself a new daughter, at least he worked so hard that he seldom minded the one he had lost. The name of her never more crossed his lips. And when anybody, gentle or simple, speered for Bell, he shut the door in their faces and syne went ben again to his weaving.
So a year or two slipped by, and maybe another five or six to the back of that, and still no word of Bell. When, true as I am telling ye, who but Bell brought back work of herself. Faith, and it was a strange word! I mind it clear as yesterday for it was me, Silver Sand, that am this day and old, done man, who gat the first glimpse of her.
It was a fine summer morn, early in June, and the clouds in the sky to the east were just the colour of the first briar rosebuds in the hedge by the roadside. I came up the brae whistling like a lintie and as free o’ care, for my heart was light in those good days. There stood the cot of Breckonside before me, shining white in the sun. For the auld miser, though he spared most other things, never was a sparer of good whitewash. I was just beginning to listen for the click-clack of Hobby’s shuttle, when down by the waterside methought I saw a ferlie.
Fegs, I said to myself that surely the auld times had come back again and that the wee folk were disporting themselves once more in brought daylight. For on the grass by the burn a bonny bit bairn ran hither and thither wavin’ its hands and laughing to the heavens for very gladness. The night had been calm, a ‘gossamer nicht,’ as we gipsy folk call it, and from hedge to hemlock and from lowly breckon to tall Queen o’ the Meadow the silver threads were stretched taut like the cordage of some sea-going ship. The dew shone silver clear on ilka silken strand, and the blobs o’ it were like pearls and diamonds in the burning sun.
And aye the langer I stood the wilder the bairn ran and loupit, lightfoot as a fairy herself. ‘Bonny – bonny – oh, bonny!’ she cried, clapping her hands and laughing, ‘see mither,mither, are they not unco bonny?’
Then by the side of the beck, as if, being wearied with travel, she had set her down to take a drink of the caller burn water, I saw a woman sit. She was aneath a bush of hazel, and her head was resting tired-like on her hand. So, being back there in the shadow, I had not noticed her at first, being taken up, as was small wonder, with the sight of that bonny yellow-haired barin flightering here and there like a butterfly in the sun.
Then the wee lass saw me and ran whatever she could to me. She took my hand and syne looked up in my face as trustful-like as if she had kenned me all her days.
‘Here, mannie,’ she cried, ‘come and wauken my minnie to me, for I canna. She winna hearken when wee Elsie speaks to her?’
Hand in hand we went up to the puir thing, and even as I gaed a great fear gripped me by the heart. For the woman sat still even when my step must have sounded in her hear. I laid my hand on her, and as I am a living man, she was clay-cauld. The bairn looked ever up into my face.
‘Can you no wauken my mither either?’ she said, wistfully.
‘No,’ says I, ‘No, my puir wee lassie!’ For, truth to tell, I kenned not what to say.
‘Will minnie never wauken?’ she asked again, bright as a button.
‘I fear not, bonnie lassie,’ said I, and the tear was in my eye.
Then the elf clappit her hands and danced like a yellow butterfly over the lea.
‘Then she willna greet ony mair! She willna be hungry ony mair. She will never need bit o’ meat nor thread o’ claes for ever mair.’ She lilted the words, almost as if she had been singing a tune. ‘She will be richt pleased my minnie. For oh, sir, she grat sair and often. She carried me in her airms till her ain feet were hurtit and she could gang nae farther. Late yestreen she sat doon here to wash them, and I sat took and after that she cuddled me in her airms. Mannie, are ye no richt glad for my minnie?’
I telled her that I was glad, for naught less would satisfy her, though even as I spak the words the sob rose in my throat.
And as we stood there looking at the woman, sitting with her face on her hands, what should happen but that the auld miser should come hirpling to the door, and there too, looking over his shoulder, was Daft Jeremy, that the village bairns were want to pook at and call the ‘Mounster.’
‘What hae ye there, gipsy Jock?’ the old man cried, shaking his stick at me; ‘keep awa frae my door wi’ your doxies and flichterin’ changeling bairns.’
But I was civil to him for his age’s sake and also because of the witless man that was looking over his shoulder. For it is not good to cross such as the Lord has smitten in their understanding, and so do my own folk never.
‘It is a woman, Laird Kinmont,’ quoth I, ‘that hath set herself down to die by your burnside.’
‘Die,’ cried he with a queer scream most like a frighted hen flying down off the baulks, ‘whatna word is that to speak? A woman dead by my burnside – what richt had she there! What has ta’en sic a liberty wi’ Hobby Kinmont?’
‘Nay, that you can come and see for yoursel’’ said I, a little nettled at the carle’s hardness of heart. So the auld miser, bent and stiff, came hirpling barehead down the path, and behind him, looking most uncanny, danced Daft Jeremy, combing his hair with a weaver’s heckle and muttering to himself. The morning sunshine fell fair on this strange couple, and when she saw him the little maid let go my hand, but he pushed her off. Wherat being nothing affronted, the witch caught at his stick and pulled it away from him before he could resist. Then she gat astride and played horses with it on the green grass of the burnside dell. It was like an incantation.
But without heeding her the old man went to the woman, and, lifting up her head, looked steadfastly in her face.
‘God in his heaven be merciful,’ he cried; ‘it is my ain dochter Bell!’
Then the ‘naiteral’ laughed loud and long, and, wrapping his ‘heckle’ in a wisp of paper, he played a tune upon it with his mouth, dancing round and crying, ‘There’s her richt for ye – ye said she hadna a richt, Laird Kinmont! Ye were that hard ye wadna fie the fremit woman room to die at your dykeside. But Bell has come home to claim her ain. Coffin and clay- coffin and clay! Sax foot o’ clean kirkyard sods! Faith, I wish a’ Daft Jeremy’s enemies had the same, nae mair and nae less. But it’s as weel as it is, Laird Kinmont – for Jeremy canna be doin’ with grown women aboot the hoose o’ Breckonside. And it’s him that has the say noo, ye ken!’
But the old man answered nothing, good nor ill. He only stood and looked down at his daughter, muttering to himself words that sounded like ‘Bell has comed hame… My bairn has comed back to me at last!’
So in time the miser buried his daughter decently, and took the little lass hame to him to bring up in the cot-house of Breckonside. But when this came to be talked of in the countryside, there was a well-to-do woman in Dumfries toon, a Mistress Comly or Comline, that was some kin to Bell Kinmont through her ain mother, and when she heard o’ the puir bit bairn shut up in that lanesome house with only an auld miser and a daft man, she had heart pity on her, and as soon as she had shut her shop one Saturday afternoon, off she sets to Breckonside in a pony cart that she used to bring her goods up from the Port.
It was but a cauldrife welcome she gat at the white house of Breckonside, but sorrow a bit Margaret Comline cared for that. She tied up her sonsy beast, that was, like hersel’, fat as pats of butter, to the yet-post of the old miser’s garden. And syne, when he came to the door himself, she did not take a couple of minutes in telling the auld runt her business plump and plain.
‘I hae comed to ask ye to pit awa’ that daft man,’ she said, and, ‘get a decent woman for a housekeeper, Laird Kinmont.’
‘Meanin’ yoursel’, Margar’t Comline,’ interrupted the miser, with a cunning smirk. He had shut the door in her face, and was conducting negotiations through a crack.
‘Me be your housekeeper,’ cried the visitor, ‘me that is a rate-payer and a weel-considered indweller in the burgh o’ Dumfries. Man, I wadna cross your doorstep though ye were Provost. But I hear that ye hae this bit bairn in the hoose, and a lassie-bairn too (that’s full cousin’s dochter to mysel’). I hae come to tell ye that it is neither Christian nor decent to bring up the wee thing but-and-ben wi’ a kenned ‘naiteral’ like Daft Jeremy, that has twice been tried for his life for the sheddin’ o bluid!’
From behind the closed inner door of the cot-house there came a high-pitched angry cry, that garred the very blood run chill as ice in Margaret Comline’s veins. I mean that the thought of it did afterwards. For at the time she just looked about her to see that Donald, her pony, was not so far away, and that the road was clear to the light market cart in case that she had to make a break for it. She had eke a stieve staff in her hand, that the loons of the port kenned brawly the weight of.
It was the voice of the man wanting wint crying out to be at her that she heard.
‘She has ta’en frae me my guid-name,’ his words reached her though the very stone and lime of the house, ‘and she wad tak’ the bonny siller oot o’ your black kist that you and Jeremy herd sae carefully. Gie the woman the bit lassie-bairn, Lairn Kinmont, and let her be gaun. For less winna serve her, and, forbye, a bairn is nocht but an expense and an eatin’ up o’ guid meat in ony man’s hoose!’
And while the din was at its height in the cot, there came a sound to Mistress Comline’s ear that garred her kind heart loup within her. It was like the whimpering of a bairn that is ill-used and dares not cry out loud. And with that she forgat her fear of the strange ‘naiteral,’ Daft Jeremy, and with her naked hands she shook the door of the cot-house of Breckonside till the iron stinchel clattered in its ring.
The Magistrates o’ Dumfries shall ken o’ this or I am a day aulder!’ she cried in to them. ‘Gie me oot the lassie or the preventative men shall hear o’ the barrels ye hae hidden in the yaird. Supervisor Imrie shall be here and search every inch high and low if ye lay as muckle as a finger on the most innocent wean!’
And even as she cried out threatenings and shook the stout oaken door so that the leaves almost fell asunder, Margaret Comline heard a noise behind her, and whipped about quickly with her heart in her mouth, for she thought it was Daft Jeremy come out to slay her.
But instead it was the wee lass herself that had escaped by a kind of miracle through the window o’ the ‘aumry’ or pantry-closet. For Laird Kinmont had it closed with a board, grudging the expense of glass. The lass was greeting and laughing at the same time – feared to the marrow of her bits of bones, but yet crouse withal. Mistress Comline marvelled to see her.
‘I hae left the stead o’ my teeth in his hand, I wot!’ she said as Mistress Comline helped her into the light card at the roadside.
‘And see what I brocht wi me,’ she added as they drove away. It was a shagreen leather pocket-book like those which well-to-do farmers carry, or rich English drovers that come to the cattle trysts to buy for the English market. And Mistress Comline, struck with fear lest she should be deleted as a thief, would have turned back. But that at that very moment, out of the door of the cot, there burst a terrifying figure – even Daft Jeremy himself, a great flesher’s knife uplifted in his hand. He was scraitching out words without meaning and looked so fleysome that the decent woman e’en slipped the shagreen purse into her reticule basket and laid whip-lash to Donald till that pampered beast must have thought that the punishment of all his sins had overtaken him at once.
The ‘naiteral’ pursued after them with these and such like affrighting outcries to the very entering of Dumfries town. And never had Margaret Comline, decent woman, been so glad to recognise His Majesty’s authority as when she saw Supervisor Imrie with two-three o’ his men come riding up from the Brig-End and out upon the green grass of the Terreggles Paes. But she said nothing, only gave them a good day in passing and bade them ‘beware o’ that puir ‘naiteral,’ Daft Jeremy, that was in one o’ his fits o’ anger that day.’
‘Sic a craitur should be in the Towbooth. He is a danger to the lieges!’ said Supervisor Imrie, adding more cautiously, ‘that is, were it no that he was be a cess on the burgh and pairish!’
When Mistress Comline gat to her own door she first delivered Donald into the hands of her serving-prentic, Robin Garmorie, as stout and blythe a lad as ever walked the Plainstanes. But the wee lass she took by the hand up to her own chamber, and there she stripped her to the skin and washed her and put fine raiment on her, new from the shop – aye, and did not rest from her labours till she had gathered every auld rag that she found on her and committed them to the flames, as if they had been art and part in the wizardry of Laird Kinmont, her grandfather, and the coming ill-repute of the white cot-house on the brae-face of Breckonside.
For at that time it was never suspected by what dread means it came to pass that auld miser Hobby had grown so passing rich, nor yet the bond that was between him and his strange house-mate and crony, Daft Jeremy. But had Mistress Comline examined what was contained in the shagreen pocket-book, she might have come nearer to the truth than an entire bench of magistrates summoned and set aside for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of them that do well.
But fearing she knew not clearly what, she sealed it up in clean white wrapper and laid it aside in her drawer, saying to herself ‘If this be honestly come by, the laird is no the man to forget to ca’ in for his ain.’ And if no…’ Here a shake of the head and a shrewd smile intimated that the contents of the pocket-book might one day be useful to its finder, little Elsie Comline, as she was now to be named.
‘And wha has a better richt!’ the shopkeeper would add, perhaps to salve her conscience in the matter.
But, indeed, it was but seldom, the pocket-book once safe in her drawer, that she thought about the matter at all. For Margaret Comline was a busy woman of affairs, having under her serving-lassies and prentice-loons, a shop on the ground floor of a house in the Vennel, and a well-patronised stall in the market. All day she went to and fro, busily commending her goods and reproving her underlings with equal earnestness and point. Sunday and Saturday the wrinkle was never off her brow. Like Martha in the Scripture, she was careful and troubled about many things. She read but seldom, and when she did her memory retained not long the imprint of what she read. So that our young monkey, Elsie, being fresh from the mischief-making of the grammar school, where she was drilled with a class of boys, used to shift the marker of woven silk back ten pages or so in the godly book over which her foster mother fell asleep on Sabbath afternoons. By which means Mistress Comline was induced to peruse the same improving passage at least fifty times in the course of a year, yet without once discovering or for a moment suspecting the fact.
For all that , she saw to it that Elsie did her nightly school tasks, recommending the master to ‘palmie’ her well if she should ever come to school unprepared. But, being a quick and ready learner, the young lass needed the less encouragement of that kind.
As she grew older, too, Elsie would, upon occasions, serve a customer in the shop, though Margaret Comline never allowed her to stand on the street among the babble of tongues at the market stalls. In a little time she could distinguish the hanks of yarn and thread, the webs of wincey and bolts of linen as well as her mistress, and was counted a shrewd and capable hand at a bargain before she was fifteen.
All this time her grandfather, the old miser Hobby, lived on in the little white house up among the fir woods of Breckonside, growing ever harder and richer, at least according to the clashes of the country folk. By day, and sometimes far into the night, the click of his shuttle was never silent, and being an old man it was thought a marvel how he could sit so long at his loom. And still Daft Jeremy abode with him and filled his pirns. Sometimes the ‘naiteral’ would sit on the dyke-top at the end of the cottage and laugh at the farmers as they rode by, crying names and unco words after them, so that many shunned to pass that way in the gloaming, for fear of the half-witted, strong creature that mopped and mowed and danced at the lonely gable-end. And they were of excellent judgment who did so.
But when Riddick of Langbarns broke his neck-bone within a mile of Laird Kinmont’s loaning, and less than a month after that Lang Hutchin was fand, one snowy Sabbath morn, lying dead with never a mark on his body save that his face was twisted out of all image of mankind and his e’en terrible to see, there were those who began to whisper fearsome things about the innocent-appearing white cot at the top of the Lang Wood o’ Breckonside.
Yet there were others again, and they a stout-hearted majority, who scoffed and told how Riddick had been seen in market carrying more than his load of whisky, and that as for Lang Hutchin had he not dared his Maker that day to strike him dead if he spoke not the truth – all that heard him well knowing that even as he uplifted his hand he lied in his throat!
Nor was Elsie wholly forgotten by her only near of kin. Twice or thrice a year there came from the cottage a web of fine cloth, woven as only Laird Kinmont could weave it, with the inscription written plainly thereon, ‘To be sold for the benefit of the upkeep of my grand-daughter Elsie Kinmont or MacHamish,’ the latter being the name of the Highland sergeant who in past years had charmed the heart of the dead woman Bell, so that she counted it a light thing to leave her father’s hearthstone to follow the tuck of drum.
Which seeing, Mistress Comline would toss her head and explode in incontinent scorn, ‘MacSkirmish indeed – the deil fee awa’ wi’ a’ the Hieland Mac Skirmishes atween Cape Wrath and the Links o’ Forth. They are no worthy yae decent burgess o’ Dumfries that tak’s doon his shutters in the mornin’ and counts up his bawbees in the even.’
So as often as Elsie offended her patroness and did the thing she ought not, it was by this name of obloquy that Mistress Comline called her.
‘Here, MacSkirmish – do ye caa’ theae pitaties scrapti? There is dirt eneuch on them to fyle Nith Water for a month. But what can yin expeck frae the dochter o’ a wild Hieland reiver. Tak’ your wabs o’ claith and be travelling up the brae. Your grandfaither, the auld miser, and his familiar, the daft man, will be prood to see ye, I dare say, since this decent woman’s law-abidin’ hoose is no guid eneuch for MacSkirmishes and the likes o’ them!’
Words such as these were mostly spoken after the wilfum maid had taken her own way and gone to visit her grandfather in the cot at the head of the Long Wood. For to do him justice the old miser was unweariedly kind to Elsie, and the maid’s heart was often wae for the lonely man weaving by his lone in the half-darkness where the great beams of the loom almost blocked the light out of the narrow cottage windows.
Mostly Daft Jeremy would vanish at her approach, though sometimes he would squat on the hearth looking at her for hours together through his dumb, sullen glooms, as if he feared that she came to carry away something that of right belonged to him. He had a flute whereon he blew strains that are not of this earth, yet which had a certain harmony and rhythm in them too, like the ‘chanties’ of demons that stoke the fires of hell.
These things Elsie did because (as she told herself) ‘blood is thicker than water.’ And also, perhaps, because Breckonside Wood is a long wood and Breckonside Brae a long brae, and there were many chances that one Will McQueen, the Provost’s son, late dux of the Grammar School and Elsie’s most constant admirer, would meet her under its shades, as it might be, by accident, and convoy her home again in the gloaming.
It chanced, late one Saturday afternoon, when the August fields stood almost ripe to the harvest (for it had been an early year on Nithside), that Elsie took her way slowly up the Lang Wood to see her grandfather. Daft Jeremy had brought the message in the morning, and her guardian had noted with surprise that he looked ‘mair spruce than ordinar’.’
‘Are ye to be marriet Jeremy?’ Mistress Comline had asked over the counter. She was in good humour, having just completed a keenly contested bargain to her satisfaction.
‘Aye,’ cried Jeremy, executing a double shuffle on the shop floor, ‘and se, Mistress, I hae bocht a bonny fiddle to dance to at the wedding!’
And sure enough, the daft creature took a fiddle and bow out of a brown paper parcel under his arm, and jigged uncouthy round to the sound of his own music till the hastily angered huxter ordered him out of the shop.
‘And sure as daith,’ said Mistress Comline, retailing the matter to her own particular gossip, ‘the craitu gaed doon the Vennel, bowin’ on his fiddle, and lauchin’ fit to raise the hair aff your crown!’
Now this good benefactress of Elsie’s, though kindly of intent and of a heart that was sound as a bell, had sundry tempers of her own which were most liable to take her on Saturdays. The perversity of ‘thae Dumfries bodies’ who, with the whole week wherein to do business, would persist in putting off till they ‘cam’ the nearest to breakin’ the Lord’s day, just to buy a pennyworth o’ preens or a double yaird o’ valenceens to trim their Sunday braws,’ spoiled her temper on the seventh day of the week. It is small wonder, then, that Elsie gladly snatched at the chance which fortune and Daft Jeremy offered her of escaping from the rigours of Mrs. Comline into the caller aisles of the Lang Wood, to say nothing of the chance that – well, that she might meet with company there more to a young maid’s mind than caffering guidwives cheapening wincey and paduasoi.
But it so chanced that Master Will McQueen had also come across the Higher Power that afternoon, and, less fortunate than his sweetheart, was left without excuse for taking an airing in the Lang Wood. His father, either ill-satisfied with his ordinary diligence or suspecting that love-making was in the young man’s mind, set him early in the day to the long labour of re-marking and checking all the goods in the shop on a brand new system of his own. Whereat Master Will chafed and fumed, bit his lip, dabbed viciously at the paper with his quill, cursing his father and the fates that bound him untimeously to his desk, when, as had been intimated to him, a certain girlish figure would be walking slowly (and it might be expectantly) under the hazel boughs of the Lang Wood.
So it chanced that, in spite of many backward glances over her shoulder, Elsie found herself still solitary, surmounting the Green Brae, at the top of which stood the cot-house of Breckonside, with its ‘pew’ of blue reek going quietly up from the kitchen chimney. She walked the last step of the way quickly, for she was angered with Will. What business had he to keep her waiting on him? Not that she cared – it was not likely that she would care – no, indeed, not in the smallest degree likely.
Still, as she came a little nearer to her destination, and heard the weird wail of the witless man’s fiddle within, which suddenly ceased in the middle of a bar, Elsie Kinmont owned to herself that it would have been indeed a comforting thought, if, while she was inside, she could have known that Will McQueen was biting his finger-nails with impatience behind the drystone dyke at the loaning foot.
However, it was not to be on this occasion. There was no tall form, clad in blue from top to toe, to be seen hastening up the road across which the slant evening shadows were creeping like checker-work on a plaid. So drawing a long breath, and resolving in her heart to stay as short a time as possible, Elsie set foot on the clean blue flagstone of the doorstep. Perhaps by the time she came out Master Will would be there – not that she would speak to him. She would show him that he could not behave to her after this fashion with impugnity. She did not care what excuse he might have.
Standing on the doorstep she listened. It was strange, she thought, that she did not hear the click of her grandfather’s shuttle.
She had never come that way before on any working day from dawn to dark, that she had not heard the steady wheeze of the loom and the click-clack which told that the miser was at his endless task.
But now a curiously uneasy silence brooded over the cot, and with a sudden throb of the heart, Elsie realised that she was alone, and that Will and the heartsome town were a very long way off indeed.
But she could not turn back now. She tapped every so lightly, telling herself that if it was not answered, she would turn and run straight home again. But almost ere the first faint rap had fallen on the blistered blue paint, the door opened and the face of Daft Jeremy appeared in the opening. He held his fiddle in one hand and with the other he beckoned the girl confidentially within.
Even then she would have turned and fled, but something in the ‘naiteral’s’ eye held her, something bright and living and daunting. She stepped over the doorstep quickly and daintily, as indeed she did all things.
‘Where is my grandfather?’ she said.
The ‘innocent’ jerked his elbow in the direction of the ‘ben’ room, where stood the loom at which the miser had worked so many years.
‘Is he at work? I do not hear him,’ said Elsie, making as if she would pass. But Daft Jeremy stretched out his great hairy paw between her and the door, and a sudden spasm of anger crossed his features. The next moment it had passed, and he grinned in her face with loutish cunning.
‘Wheest,’ he said, holding up his finger, ‘ye maunna disturb him – he’s makkin’ his wull! Thoosands and thoosands of pounds – you an’ me are to be his heirs. He wadna trust thae laywer bodies; na, na – they wad hae pitten it by puir Jeremy. Jeremy that made it a’ for the Laird – Jeremy that watched ahint dykes or amang the trees o’ the Lang Wood mony a drear winter’s nicht – Jeremy that struck the stroke and howkit the hole! Wha should hae the siller – a’ the bonny gowden guineas that him and me countit on this table, if it werena Jeremy? And you, my bonny young lamb, ye shall hae them too. For this is to be oor marriage nicht, yours and mine!’
With a gasp of fear Elsie rose from the seat and strove to reach the door of the inner room.
‘I will go to my grandfather; I must see him,’ she said, breathlessly. ‘Let me pass!’
But Daft Jeremy, with the strange black glitter of madness in his eye, stood between her and the latch of the door.
Then quite suddenly Elsie lost her presence of mind.
‘Grandfather! Grandfather!’ she cried aloud. ‘Come I want you!’
And with her little hand she pushed against the breast of the maniac. But he set her aside as one brushes a moth away, with one hand, and passing the other round her shoulders covered her mouth tightly.
‘Did I no tell you to be quiet,’ he hissed in her ear.’ Do as I bid ye, then. The Laird is no to be disturbit at his work!’
Then the dreadful thought came to Elsie that she was trapped and at the mercy of this wild beast. But with the thought came the calmness of resolve. There was nothing for it but to humour him till, as was likely, Will McQueen would arrive, or her benefactress send in search of her.
After watching Elsie suspiciously a while, the man-wanting wit took up his fiddle and began to play, if that could be called playing which contained scarcely a strain of mortal music. Only here and there the lit of an air emerged, or suggestions of reels and strathspeys, songs and quicksteps; but all hopeless and weariful like music played by demons in the Place of Ill to taunt the damned with the ghosts of happy memories.
And there, in the deepening gloaming, mercifully long and clear, the girl sat and nodded approval, listening for a footfall without, or a stir in the room within which her grandfather sat, if the madman spoke truth, drawing up his will.
Suddenly Daft Jeremay threw down the fiddle.
‘What am I thinkin’ on,’ he cried, ‘ye’ll no had had your ‘fower hours,’ bonny lassie! Bide ye here till I fetch a peat of twa frae t he hoose-end.’
Hope dawned anew in Elsie’s heart. She smiled brightly upon him.
‘I will get down the tea-caddy,’ she said, and looked along the mantelpiece for it. But again the angry, threatening look flashed across the maniacs face.
‘Na, na, bide ye where ye are, lassie. In the hooose o’ Breckonside guid bairs do as they are bid. What’s in the tea-caddy is no yours yet. It belongs to Jeremy – and him.
He pointed to the shut door of the silent ‘ben’ room with his finger.
After standing in this attitude awhile he opened the outer door, and, going out, closed it behind him again. Elsie heard the click of the lock. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, she ran to the ‘ben’ room and lifted the latch. The door was fast.
‘Grandfather – open – open – quick! It’s me, your Elsie, you ain Elsie!’
But there was no answering movement within. No reply came from the loom, only from the gable-end she could hear the noise of peats flung rudely into a leathern ‘wecht,’ and the senseless crooning of Daft Jeremy as he went about his work.
However, she noticed that a ray of light streamed through a crack, and kneeling down Elsie perceived her grandfather sitting at his loom. His brow was bent forward upon the beam, and between his hunched shoulders something showed black against the red western sunset. It seemed in shape like the haft of a knife.
The girl kept her reason as she gazed. Perhaps the fighting stock from which, on her father’s side she came, helped her in her hour of need.
She heard the murderer (as she did not doubt that he was) returning. He crooned a weariful song as he fitted the key into the lock. Then she prayed as she had never prayed before for Will to come and save her. Yet no, she thought with fear of what the madman might do to Will, falling up on him unarmed and unsuspecting. She saw no help, unless it should come directly from God.
But all the same she rose mechanically and made up the fire to boil the kettle. And as she went about the house Daft Jeremy followed her with his eyes greedily.
‘After a’ ye are a bonny lassie,’ he said; ‘you and me will do fine yet. We will be rich and ride in our carriage. Yon man doon the hoose wadna gie me the siller that was my richt. He denied me a single pound note to buy a fiddle – me that brucht it to him purse by purse – a’ except the shagreen ane that was lost.’
Then, dazed and affrighted, the girl sat shuddering while Jeremy with laughter and slapping of thigh, reeled off the terrible tale of how his master and he had made a murder trap of the Long Wood, carefully selecting their victims, marking them down beforehand, drovers from Ireland and the Shire, unknown English men riding to other distant markets. He related how Laird Kinmont had bidden him spring upon them unawares in the dark – how their strength was of no avail in his hands, and how the murderous pair had brought goods and gear home to the white cot-house on the braeface of Breckonside.
‘And yet, after a’ that, he refused me a pound note to buy a fiddle to play a spring on at my own weddin’!’ he concluded, looking at the closed door of the weaving-room with a dark and threatening brow.
Then, as if a thought had suddenly stung him, he took from a corner cupboard a pair of pistols, primed them and laid them on the table before him. Then he nodded to Elsie.
‘Dance!’ he cried, with sudden vehemence,’ ‘dance, ye lazy hizzie. Ye shall gang the same road as your gran’daddy if ye cross Daft Jeremy. Do ye think to lichtly me that am to be your wedded husband. Dance, missie, and I will play ye the bonny music!’
And there, on the blue whinstone flags of the cottage floor, Elsie Kinmont danced for her life, hour after hour as the shadows deepened and the shaft of light ceased from the crack in the door of the ‘ben’ room – the room which contained she knew not what of strange and terrible – her dead grandfather for one thing with the haft of a knife sticking in his back.
And ever as the maniac tired of one tune Elsie called for another, and danced on to the sound of the fiddle sweeping out through the wood in eerie gusts, and to the yet weirder accompaniment of the laughter of the madman.
When at last the moon rose, large and full, over the dark pines of the Lang Wood, Elsie was still dancing, pale and weary-footed, smiling with her lips but with despair in her heart. Then all at once, suddenly dropping his fiddle, the maniac cried, ‘Sing! Am I to do all the work?’
And Elsie, with her eyes on the long moonlit avenue, which led through the wood up to the cot-house, lifted up her voice and sang of the sadness that dwells in Yarrow. It was the first song that came into her mind: -
Oh Willie’s rare and Willie’s fair,
And Willies wondrous bonny,
And Willy hecht to mairry me,
Gin ever he married ony.
She put all her fear-stricken heart into the words. They seemed to leap out on the night with a tragic appeal. And with a quick nerve-jerking hope Elsie saw a figure cross the loaning and vanish as if it ran from tree to tree. Life stirred within her when she had counted herself as good as dead, and she sang ever the louder. The mad murderer held up his hand to stop her. His quick ear, or some suspicious instinct, had caught a sound without. He drew a sheath-knife from his pocket and opened it with a snap. ‘This will be quieter than a pistol,’ he said. Then going on tiptoe he slipped silently to the door. She could hear him breathing behind it. The next moment it was open and he was out. Elsie snatched the loaded pistols he had left on the table before him and pursued after. He would kill Willie – that was what was in her thought. She was sure it was he. She cried out to warn him.
About the house came the panting chase. It was indeed Willie McQueen, who ran, unarmed and helpless, scarce a dozen steps from the uplifted knife of the slayer.
‘Into the house, Willie!’ she cried, stepping down from the threshold to let him pass. There was no time for thought. Elsie thrust one of the pistol barrels against the pursuer’s chest. Without intention she pressed the trigger, and the next moment, with a terrible scream of agony, Daft Jeremy fell forward, making a clang of steel on the whinstone of the doorstep.
Then, leaving the dead man with his forehead cold upon his weaver’s beam, and the dying murderer lying where he had fallen across the threshold of the cot-house of Breckonside, the pair of young folks fled down the avenue of the wood, half crazed with the multiplied terrors of the night.
And as they ran hand in hand, Elsie said pantingly and in agony of soul,’ Oh, Willie, Willie, I hae killed a man!’
Then, as they reached the lights of the Brig-End, she added, ‘But God will forgive me, for I did it to save you, Willie!’
In the days which followed the cot-house of Breckonside was razed stone from stone by the infuriated people. The miser’s ill-gotten hoards were handed over to the officers of the law, and all the murderous traffic exposed by which Laird Kinmont had so long used the madman as his instrument to gather in his spoils.
The two bodies even were refused Christian burial, being thrown as they were found in a pit at the gable-end of the fatal ruins. Even the road itself was carried another way, so great was the horror folk had of passing the graves of the weaver laird and his henchman, Daft Jeremy, the murderers of Lang Wood.
As for Willie and Elsie, no long time passed before they crossed the sea together, that the disgrace of the dead might not cling to their children after them. And with them went Mistress Margaret Comline, who settled up her business in Dumfries, with the intent that (as she declared) ‘she might be spared to guide the footsteps o’ twa foolish young folks into the paths o' peace and pleasantness.'
But, even in a foreign land and among a fremit folk, Willie and Eslie never speak of the night when she danced for her own life, and slew a man to save her sweetheart’s, under the pines of the Lang Wood of Breckonside.
And that (concluded Silver Sand), when you come to think of it, is a thing little to be wondered at.
First published in 1901 in 'The Graphic Magazine' as a Christmas story, the novel Deep Moat Grange (1908) developed from it.