THE LAST OF THE SMUGGLERS
I had been so long away from my own country that when I looked out once more upon the heather at the little waterside station of Dornal, on the Port Murdoch line, the width and space about me, the loneliness of the hills, and the crying of the muir-fowl affected me almost to tears. It was not long, however, before I had other things to think about.
I had long been an orphan, and indeed had not felt much the worse for it. My father and mother died when I was a boy at school, and the uncle who brought me up and put me into his own business in England must have taken some distaste to his native country of Galloway. At any rate, he never revisited it, nor for that matter encouraged me to do so. Nevertheless, he gave me an excellent education, and trained me well to his own profession of architect and building contractor, with the idea that I should succeed him in Highgate when he should wish to retire to the pretty house he had built for himself on the shores of one of the most beautiful of English lakes.
But quite suddenly one morning, when I was twenty-four, my uncle was found dead in his bed, and I, Hal Grierson, came into immediate possession of a good business and a very considerable sum of money.
Among other things in my uncle's safe, I found a large number of letters, receipts for money, and private memoranda. From these I learned for the first time that I had a relative living of whom I had never so much as heard. My uncle Walter Arrol was of course my mother's brother and a man singularly reticent in all things not pertaining to business. Still, it struck me as strange, and in a way humorous, that as a young man of twenty-four I should come first to the knowledge that I had a grandfather living.
Yet after many perusals and reperusals of the letters and memoranda, I could come to no other conclusion. It was now the middle of December, and so late as the month before here was a letter dated from the ‘Cothouse of Curlywee.’ It ran as follows:--
‘Dear Son, —Herewith I enclose bank-bill for twenty-five pound. We have had a good back-end and are well. Please acknowledge receipt.—Your afft. father, John Arrol.’
I laughed aloud when I came upon the letter. It seemed to me that it was rather late to add a live grandfather to my family connection. Then the ‘we’ puzzled me. Had I a grandmother too—or several uncles? At any rate, my curiosity was highly excited.
But as far as correspondence went, I found no clue. My uncle had not encouraged sentiment, and though there were many similar notes, dating at half-yearly intervals for nearly fifteen years back, his ‘afft. Father’ never got beyond the simple and perspicuous statement that it had been a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ year that the ‘lambs were doing fine,’ or that ‘there were many daiths among the yowes.’
I discovered, however, that fifteen years before Walter Arrol had bought a little moorland property in Galloway which had then come into the market. He paid what, with my knowledge of English prices, seemed to me a ridiculously inadequate price for the five or six thousand acres it was stated to comprise.
The title-deeds were there, all in due order, and the receipts for taxation stamps, and lawyers' charges. There was also the memorandum of a loan of a thousand pounds to ‘John Arrol, my father, to stock the farm of Curlywee with black-faced sheep,’ together with notes of payment of 4 per cent, for the first five years. After that I could trace no further receipts on that account.
It was just the day before Christmas that I set out from a midland town where I had had some business, resolved to find out all that I did not know about my Galloway relatives. I might easily have written, indeed, either to ‘John Arrol’ himself, who from his style of correspondence would have been the very man to give me exact information, or to the firm of lawyers in Cairn Edward whose name was upon the deeds and parchments.
But, though it would have ruined me from a business point of view had it been known in Highgate, I have always had a romantic strain in my blood, and the little adventure pleased me.
I would take a little climb, I told myself, into the branches of my family tree. I would go in person to the Cothouse of Curlywee, and make the acquaintance of my grandfather. I wondered if ‘John Arrol’ would turn out to be as ignorant of my existence as I had been of his. At any rate, he was clearly not a person to waste words or squander his sentiment broadcast. Had I been content to prove my title to my uncle's property, he would have continued to sign himself ‘John Arrol,’ to enclose his half-yearly rent, and to require a receipt therefor to the end of the chapter without making the least effort to cultivate my acquaintance.
So this was the errand upon which I found myself in the little wayside station of Dornal. It was a grim and greyish winter afternoon, and I had occupied myself in speculating, as the train slowly struggled up the incline, how long this rough bouldery desolation was to continue, and at what point it would issue forth upon the level strath and kindly hamlets of men, where I had pictured to myself my venerable relative residing in patriarchal dignity.
‘Can you show me the way to the village of Curlywee?’ I said to the stationmaster, who came out of his office to take my ticket. He made a dash at me almost like a terrier at a rat.
‘The what?’ he said sharply, dropping his official manner in his surprise.
‘The village of Curlywee!’
The stationmaster laughed a short, quick laugh, almost as one would expect the aforesaid terrier to do in mirthful mood. He turned about on the pivot of one heel.
‘Rob!’ he cried sharply. ‘Come ye here!’
'I canna come! I'm at the lamps— foul fa' them! The oil they hae sent us this time will no' burn ony mair than as muckle spring water!’
‘Come here, I tell ye, Rob, or I'll report ye!’
‘Report awa'—an' be!’ Something that I did not catch.
The stationmaster did not further attempt to bring his official dignity to bear upon his recalcitrant subordinate. He tried another tack.
‘There's a man out here wants to ken the road to the village of Curlywee!’
And as he spoke the little wiry stationmaster glanced quizzically up at me, as much as to say, ‘That will fetch him!’
I failed to see the humour— then.
Immediately I heard a bouncing sound. Heavy feet trampled in the unseen lamp-room, a stool was knocked over, and a great broad, jovial-faced man came out still rubbing a lamp globe with a most unclean piece of waste.
‘The village o' Curlywee?’ he inquired, smiling broadly at me, as it were from head to foot. ‘Did I understand ye to say the village o' Curlywee?’
I nodded. I was growing vexed.
‘I never heard tell o't!’ he continued slowly, still smiling and shaking his head.
‘Is there not a conveyance— an omnibus, or a trap of any kind which I can hire to take me there?’
I was getting more than a little angry by this time. It seemed past belief that I should have come so far to be laughed at by a couple of boors in the middle of a Galloway morass.
‘Ow ay, there's a conveyance,’ said the porter, ‘a pair o' them!’
‘Then,’ said I tartly, ‘be good enough to put my bag in one of them and let me get off!’
The big man continued to rub and grin. The stationmaster watched me quizzically with his grey birse of a head at the side.
Then, with the piece of dirty waste in his hand, ‘Rob’ pointed to my knickerbockered legs and brown leather shoes.
‘Thae's the only conveyance ye'll get to Curlywee if ye wait a month at the Dornal!’
‘What!’ I cried, ‘is there no road? There surely must be some kind of a highway.’
Again the waste rag pointed. It was waved like a banner across the bleak moorish wilderness upon which the twilight was settling grey.
‘Road?’ he cried gleefully, ‘highway? Ay, there's the hillside—juist the plain hillside!’
He waved me an introduction to it like a master of ceremonies.
‘Enough of this,’ I said tartly. ‘I have come from London.’
‘So I see by your ticket—it's a fine big place London!’ interjected the stationmaster, with the air of one about to begin an interesting conversation.
‘To see a gentleman in the neighbourhood of the name of John Arrol who lives at Curlywee. I would be obliged if you would point out to me the best and quickest way of reaching his house!’
The two men looked at each other. There was nothing like a broad grin on the big man's face now. The stationmaster also had lost his alert and amused air and had become suddenly thoughtful.
As neither of the two spoke, I added still more sharply, ‘Do you know the gentleman?’
‘Ow ay,’ said Rob, ‘we ken the man!’
‘Well, be good enough to put me on the road to his house!’
Rob of the lamp and rag turned slowly as one of my own cranes turns with a heavy load of stone. His arm pointed out over the thin bars of shining steel of the railroad track.
‘Yonder,’ he said. ‘Keep straucht up the gully till ye come to yon nick in the hill. Then turn to the left for three or four mile through the Dead Man's Hollow. Syne ye will come to a water, and if ye can get across, haud up the face o' the gairy, and gin ye dinna break your neck by faain' intil the Dungeon o' Buchan or droon ye in the Cooran Lane, ye will see the Cothouse o' Curlywee richt afore your nose!’
It was not an appetising description, but anything was better than staying there to be laughed at, so I thanked the man, asked him to put my bag in the left luggage office, and proffered him a shilling.
The big man looked at the coin in my fingers.
‘What's this for?’ he said.
‘To pay the ticket for the left luggage,’ I said, ‘and the rest for yourself!’
Slowly he shook his head.
‘There's no' sic a thing nearer than Cairn Edward as a left luggage office,’ he said; ‘but I'll put the bit bag in the lamp-room. It'll be there if ever ye want it again!’
‘What do you mean?’ I cried furiously. ‘Do you know that I am?’
‘I mean,’ said Rob deliberately, ‘that ye are like to hae a saft walk and to need a' your daylicht before ye get to Curlywee this nicht. A guid journey to ye!’
Upon the details of that weary and terrible journey I need not linger; though, when at first I threw my leg over the wire fencing of the railway and stepped out on the moor, the instinct of the heather seemed to come back to me. I lost my way at least half a dozen times. Indeed, if the moon had not been shining about half full in behind the grey sky, I must have wandered all night without remedy and most likely been frozen to death. My London-made single-soled shoes were soon completely sodden, and the uppers began to part company with the welt. I was wet to the waist or above it by falling into deep moss holes, where the black peaty water oozed through the softest of verdurous green.
I was bruised by constant stumbles over unseen boulders, and scratched as to my hands by slipping on icy rock. A thousand times I cursed myself for leaving my comfortable rooms which looked over to Hampstead Heath. I might have been reading a volume of Rob Roy with my feet one on each side of the mantelpiece. And— at that very moment my foot plunged through the heather into a deep crevasse between two boulders, and I wrenched my ankle sideways with a stound of pain keen as a knife.
By this time I had been six or seven hours out on the moor. I had, to the best of my ability, endeavoured to steer the course set for me by the big-boned genius of the lamp. I possessed a little compass at my watch-chain, and my profession had made me accustomed enough to using it. But in the grey uncertain light the glens seemed to turn all the wrong way, and what ‘the face of the gairy’ might be I had not the least idea. I only knew that at the moment when I sprained my ankle I had been descending a hillside as lonely as an African desert and apparently as remote from anywhere as the North Pole.
I managed, however, by an effort to get it out of the trap into which I had fallen, and sat down upon a rock, half dazed with the shock. I remember that I moaned a little with the pain and started at the sound, not realising that I had been making it myself.
When I came round a little I was looking down into a kind of misty valley. The ground appeared to fall away on every side, and I could see shadowy and ghost-like forms of boulders all about me, some standing erect like menhirs, pointing stony fingers to the grey winter sky; some with noses sharpened took the exact shape of Polar bears scenting a prey as you may see them in the plates of my favourite Dr. Kane.
Gradually it dawned upon me that there was some sort of a light beneath me in the valley. It seemed most like a red pulsing glow, as if a nearly extinct fire were being blown up with bellows. A sense of eeriness came over me. I had been educated by my uncle in a severe school of practicality. To be a contracting builder in the better-class suburbs of London is destructive of romance. But I have the Pictish blood in me for all that. Aboriginal terrors prickle in my blood as I pass a graveyard at midnight, and never when I can help it do I go under one of my own ladders! But now, for the first time in my life, I felt a kind of stiffening of the hair of my scalp.
But this did not last long. My foot and ankle recalled me to myself. I could not, I thought, be worse off than I was— wet, miserable, hurt. If that light beneath me betokened a human habitation in the wild, I was saved. If not— well, I was no worse than I had been.
So, with a certain amount of confidence, I made shift to limp downward towards the strange pulsing, undulating glow. But though the sweat ran from me like rain, I could only go a few yards at a time. Nevertheless, the ruddy eye grew ever plainer as I descended, winking slowly and irregularly, waxing and waning like a fire permitted to go low and then again replenished.
At last I was near enough to see that the light proceeded from beneath a great face of rock which sprang upwards into the sky so high that it faded ghost-like into the milky glow of the choked moonlight. Just then my injured foot jarred painfully upon a stone which gave beneath its thrust. The loose boulder thundered away down the declivity, and with a cry I sank upon my hands and knees.
When I came to myself I could not speak. Something had been thrust into my mouth, something that gagged and almost choked me. My hands also were tied behind me. The red pulsing glow had vanished, but between me and the faintly lit grey sky I could see a tall dark figure which moved purposefully about. Presently I found myself dragged to my feet and thrust rudely forward. I tried to make my captor understand that I could not walk; but as I could not speak, I could only do this by lying down and utterly refusing to proceed. Then my captor drew a lantern from behind a heather bush and flashed it upon my face.
As he did so I held up my foot and endeavoured by signs to show where and how it was hurt. I was utterly unprepared for what my captor did next. He took me by the arms and laid me over his shoulders, pulling the plaid which he wore about my body as a kind of supporting belt. Then, with slow steady strides, he began to descend the hill. I suffered agonies lest we should both fall, and my ankle pained me till I nearly wept with sheer agony.
At last, with a fling of his foot my captor threw aside a door, stepped down a step, and I found myself stretched upon some straw.
Then a candle was lit, and the flame, sinking to nothing and then rising again, illuminated a little barn half-filled with sheaves and fodder. Upon a heap of the latter I was lying with my head away from the door.
‘So,’ said he who had brought me, ‘I hae catched ye, sirrah!’
I saw my man now— a tall old man, with abundant grizzled hair, his face clean-shaven, and having a fringe of grey beard beneath the chin. Its expression was stern, even fierce, and the eyes, under bushy eyebrows that were yet raven-black, looked out undimmed by years, and unsoftened by pity. It was a medieval, almost a savage, countenance. Even so, I thought, might Rob Roy himself have looked in his wilder moments. I had to recur to my wounded foot to convince myself that I had left a nineteenth-century railway station less than ten hours before.
Was it possible that this was the reason that my uncle did not visit his Galloway tenants, and did this one wish to square a deficiency in his rent by making an end of his landlord?
But the old man did not offer to touch me again, not even to release me from my bonds. He simply threw a few sacks over me, picked up the lantern, and went out with these words, ‘Bide ye there, my man, till I am ready for you!’
But whether he went out to dig my grave or take his supper I could not make out, though the speculation was not without some elements of interest. At any rate, he locked the door behind him, and I was left alone in the black blank darkness of the barn.
It was poor enough cheer, and I began to shiver with the cold of the moss hags in my bones. Whether that exercise helped to loose the bonds about my wrists I know not— perhaps they were hastily tied. At any rate, it was not long before I had my hands loose. Then I could take the knotted handkerchief with its short cross knuckle of bog-oak out of my mouth. But I could do no more to make myself easy. My foot and ankle were already terribly painful, and the latter, as I could feel with my hand, had swollen almost to double its usual size.
After that I cannot tell very well what happened for some time. It may seem impossible, but I think that I slept at least, certain it is that the night passed somehow, between sleeping and shivering. Hot flushes passed over me, with wafts of that terrible feeling of falling away, which precedes fever.
When I awoke in the morning, it seemed that I saw a young girl sitting opposite me on the edge of an overturned bushel measure. She had her chin in the hollow of her palm. Yet my head so whirled with the trouble which was on me, that I could not be sure till she rose and came close to me with a pitying look in her eyes. Then I tried to think of something to say to her which might explain who I was, and how I came thither. For I began to be sure there had been some mistake. However, I could think of nothing but what day it was. So I said to her as she approached in the most commonplace way possible, ‘I wish you a merry Christmas!’
Yet all the time I knew very well that I was making a consummate fool of myself.
The girl seemed checked by my words, and then touched, perhaps, by the ridiculous anomaly of my appearance and my commonplace greeting, she burst into a ringing peal of laughter. I think I laughed, too, a little, but I am not sure. When next I came to myself I was being supported upon clouds or down, or at least by something equally pleasant and soft. Whereat I opened my eyes, and there was the girl trying to get some hot liquid down my throat out of a long thin-stemmed glass.
As soon as she saw that I was conscious, she said, ‘Are you the excise officer from Port Mary who has been watching my great-uncle?’’
‘No,’ said I; ‘my name is Henry Grierson. I come from London. Where am I?’
But she sat up with a face of great horror.
‘Not the exciseman— why, you are never Hal Grierson, my cousin?’
‘That is my name,’ I said, steadied by the situation. ‘I came to look for a grandfather I never knew I possessed till a week or two ago! His name is John Arrol, and he lives at the Cothouse of Curlywee!’
The girl smiled a little.
‘This is the Cothouse of Curlywee, and my great-uncle mistook you for a gauger, an exciseman! It is a mercy he did not kill you! But wait—I will bring him— he will be so sorry!’
By this time I had forgotten the pain in my head, and I was none so eager for the presence of my terrible relative.
‘Please wait a moment. I want to ask your name,’ I said, looking up at her.
‘My name is Elsa Arrol,’ she answered frankly, and in a cultivated manner. ‘My father used to live here with his uncle during the last years of his life, and when he died I had to leave school in Edinburgh and come to Curlywee to keep house for my great-uncle!’
‘Then you are my cousin?’ I said, with some eagerness.
‘Yes; a cousin of a sort— not a first cousin!’
And even then I was glad somehow, of so much kinship.
‘Will you shake hands with your new cousin before you go?’ I said.
‘I will do better,’ she answered, fluttering down from the edge of the corn-mow where she had seated herself. ‘This is Christmas Day, and the cobwebs on the roof will serve for mistletoe!’
And, soft as a snowflake, I was aware of a waft of perfumed air and something that, which might have been a butterfly and might have been a pair of lips, alighting on my forehead for a moment.
‘There, you will think I am a bold madam, but you are hurt, and deserve a greeting better than a handshake after what you have gone through.’
Again I was left alone. But not for long. I saw the fierce old man again in the doorway, his brow still gloomy, though it was no longer angry.
‘This lass tells me you are not the Port Mary gauger,’ he said, with a hard accent; ‘that you come from London. Is this true?’
‘It is,’ said I briefly. For I thought of the knuckle of bog-oak between my jaws.
‘Then what might you be doing on my hill at midnight of a winter's nicht?’
‘Well,’ I returned, with some point, ‘it is, in a way, my hill also. At least, if it be a part of the property of Curlywee, left me by my uncle, the late Walter Arrol of Highgate.’
‘What,’ he cried, a little hoarsely, ‘ye are never my Annie's boy— wee Harry Grierson?’
‘The same!’ I said, still curtly. For I wanted to see how he would extricate himself. He stood frowning awhile, and stripping the piles from a head of corn.
‘Ye will not misunderstand me if I confess that I am grieved for what has happened,’ he said, with a certain stern and manifest dignity of bearing, which became him. ‘I am sorry, not because ye are now my landlord, and I your tenant and debtor— but because I have made a mistak', and showed but poor hospitality to the wayfaring man!’
‘Say no more about it,’ I answered; ‘but give me a bed to lie down on, and a pillow for my head. For I am very ill.’
The old man lifted me in his arms like a child, and carried me into his own room, where he laid me down. Then with a skill, patience, and tenderness I could not have believed possible, he undressed me, and laid me on his own bed.
When this was done he called Elsa, and she brought hot water to bathe my swollen ankle, now in girth well-nigh as thick as my thigh. He said not a word more about his rough treatment of me, nor did he mention my late uncle, nor the quarrel which had separated them in life.
All that strange Christmas Day I was light-headed, and these two gave me brews of herb-tea, famed in Galloway as a febrifuge. I dozed off, and awoke to find my cousin Elsa still unweariedly pouring hot water over my foot, or coming in with a new poultice of marsh-mallow leaves in her hands. I suppose I must have talked a great deal of nonsense. Indeed, Elsa told me afterwards that I made a great many very personal remarks upon her eyes and hair, which made her blush for shame before her great-uncle.
I was somewhat better, however, the next morning, and was able to join in the exercise of family worship, which my grandfather conducted at great length, reading two or three chapters of names and genealogies out of the historical books of the Old Testament in a loud, harsh voice (as if he had a spite against them). Then, reverently laying the great Bible aside, he stood up to pray. I noticed that as he did so he smoothed his grey badger's brush of hair down on top, as if it were a part of the ceremony.
When he had finished praying, my grandfather stood awhile, and then sat down beside me.
‘Elsa,’ he said, ‘will you betake yourself to the aumry for a space. I have something to say to this young man that is only for a man and a kinsman to hear.’
My cousin obediently vanished. I never heard so light a footfall.
‘Now, sir,’ said the old man, ‘you have been brought up in another school and may misunderstand. But I must e'en tak' the risk of that. Did your uncle give you any religious training?’
‘He never mentioned the subject to me, sir!’ I said. For my uncle, though a good man, had been no churchgoer or church lover.
‘Are you a true Presbyterian, then, or are ye one of the worshippers of the Scarlet Woman that sitteth upon the Seven Hills?’
‘I have not really thought much about it,’ I replied. ‘I am a Christian—I believe I may say that. Though, indeed, I have no claims to be thought better than my neighbours— indeed, the contrary!’
‘Then,’ said the old man, frowning, ‘I fear ye are no better than a heathen man, and a publican.’
‘But,’ I cried, ‘was not there One born this Christmas Day who was partial to the company of publicans and sinners?’
I thought I had him there, but he evaded me.
‘That is in the New Testament!’ he retorted, somewhat disparagingly. ‘You will not understand, but listen. I am an old Cameronian, as my fathers were before me. No one of us has ever owned an uncovenanted king. Arrols not a few have gone to prison and to judgment, because we would not bow the knee to tyranny in the land and prelacy in the kirk. I have never paid a king's cess or tax till the law distrained upon my goods. And I continue to bake my bread and brew my ale as my fathers did before me. And who shall say me nay? Not any gauger that ever tapped a barrel!’
I certainly had no intention of doing so; but, all the same, it seemed a curious thing to have smuggling and illicit distilling put, as it were, upon a religious basis.
The old man continued--
‘Therefore it was that I mistook ye for the spy of the Queen's excise. I had watched the craitur nosing about the hilltaps for a day or two. I fear I used you somewhat roughly. For that I ask your pardon.’
I hastened to assure him that I never bore a grudge. He thrust out his hand at the word.
‘No more do I,’ he said, quickly adding, however— ‘that is, no' after it is satisfied!’
It was thus that I spent my Christmas Day in the Cothouse of Curlywee. It was three weeks more before I could leave my chair, and a month before I was able to return south to business. So that it was well my uncle had left competent men in charge. During this time, not unnaturally, I saw a good deal of my cousin. I thought her every day more charming, as she certainly grew more beautiful. As for my grandfather, he used to lie out upon the brae-faces with a long spyglass looking for the exciseman from Port Mary. But that gentleman showed the excellence of his judgment by obstinately staying away.
When at last I went over the moor towards the station, I rode upon a strong sheltie. Elsa came part of the way with me, ‘to convoy me off the ground,’ as she said. At our parting-place I asked her a certain question, which at first she refused to answer directly.
Afterwards she stated that she had conscientious scruples about the marriage of cousins and other near relatives. However, I am not without the strongest reasons for hoping that these objections are not insuperable, and that they will be overcome by next Christmas Eve. Already I have observed tokens of wavering. But, in any case, we will not tell my grandfather till the last moment; for where he will get a housekeeper to dwell alone in the Cot-house of Curlywee is more than either of us can tell. Meantime I am grateful for all that my Christmas Eve search for a grandfather has brought me.
From The Bloom o' the Heather, 1908.