THE MINISTER DANCES TO THE WOMAN’S PIPING.
Gavin let the doctor’s warnings fall in the grass. In his joy over Nanny’s deliverance he jumped the garden gate, whose hinges were of yarn, and cleverly caught his hat as it was leaving his head in protest. He then re-entered the mud house staidly. Pleasant was the change. Nanny’s home was as a clock that had been run out, and is set going again. Already the old woman was unpacking her box, to increase the distance between herself and the poorhouse. But Gavin only saw her in the background, for the Egyptian, singing at her work, had become the heart of the house. She had flung her shawl over Nanny’s shoulders, and was at the fireplace breaking peats with the leg of a stool. She turned merrily to the minister to ask him to chop up his staff for firewood, and he would have answered wittily but could not. Then, as often, the beauty of the Egyptian surprised him into silence. I could never get used to her face myself in the after-days. It has always held me wondering, like my own Glen Quharity on a summer day, when the sun is lingering and the clouds are on the march, and the glen is never the same for two minutes, but always so beautiful as to make me sad. Never will I attempt to picture the Egyptian as she seemed to Gavin while she bent over Nanny’s fire, never will I describe my glen. Yet a hundred times have I hankered after trying to picture both.
An older minister, believing that Nanny’s anguish was ended, might have gone on his knees and finished the interrupted prayer, but now Gavin was only doing this girl’s bidding.
“Nanny and I are to have a dish of tea, as soon as we have set things to rights,” she told him. “Do you think we should invite the minister, Nanny?”
“We couldna dare,” Nanny answered quickly. “You’ll excuse her, Mr. Dishart, for the presumption?”
“Presumption!” said the Egyptian, making a face.
“Lassie,” Nanny said, fearful to offend her new friend, yet horrified at this affront to the minister, “I ken you mean weel, but Mr. Dishart’ll think you’re putting yoursel’ on an equality wi’ him.” She added in a whisper, “Dinna be so free; he’s the Auld Licht minister.”
The gypsy bowed with mock awe, but Gavin let it pass. He had, indeed, forgotten that he was anybody in particular, and was anxious to stay to tea.
“But there is no water,” he remembered, “and is there any tea?”
“I am going out for them and for some other things,” the Egyptian explained. “But no,” she continued, reflectively, “if I go for the tea, you must go for the water.”
“Lassie,” cried Nanny, “mind wha you’re speaking to. To send a minister to the well!”
“I will go,” said Gavin, recklessly lifting the pitcher. “The well is in the wood, I think?”
“Gie me the pitcher, Mr. Dishart,” said Nanny, in distress. “What a town there would be if you was seen wi’t!”
“Then he must remain here and keep the house till we come back,” said the Egyptian, and thereupon departed, with a friendly wave of her hand to the minister.
“She’s an awfu’ lassie,” Nanny said, apologetically, “but it’ll just be the way she has been brought up.”
“She has been very good to you, Nanny.”
“She has; leastwise, she promises to be. Mr. Dishart, she’s awa’; what if she doesna come back?”
Nanny spoke nervously, and Gavin drew a long face.
“I think she will,” he said faintly. “I am confident of it,” he added in the same voice.
“And has she the siller?”
“I believe in her,” said Gavin, so doggedly that his own words reassured him. “She has an excellent heart.”
“Ay,” said Nanny, to whom the minister’s faith was more than the Egyptian’s promise, “and that’s hardly natural in a gaen-aboot body. Yet a gypsy she maun be, for naebody would pretend to be ane that wasna. Tod, she proved she was an Egyptian by dauring to send you to the well.”
This conclusive argument brought her prospective dower so close to Nanny’s eyes that it hid the poorhouse.
“I suppose she’ll gie you the money,” she said, “and syne you’ll gie me the seven shillings a week?”
“That seems the best plan,” Gavin answered.
“And what will you gie it me in?” Nanny asked, with something on her mind. “I would be terrible obliged if you gae it to me in saxpences.”
“Do the smaller coins go farther?” Gavin asked, curiously.
“Na, it’s no that. But I’ve heard tell o’ folk giving away half-crowns by mistake for twa-shilling bits; ay, and there’s something dizzying in ha’en fower-and-twenty pennies in one piece; it has sic terrible little bulk. Sanders had aince a gold sovereign, and he looked at it so often that it seemed to grow smaller and smaller in his hand till he was feared it micht just be a half after all.”
Her mind relieved on this matter, the old woman set off for the well. A minute afterwards Gavin went to the door to look for the gypsy, and, behold, Nanny was no further than the gate. Have you who read ever been sick near to death, and then so far recovered that you could once again stand at your window? If so, you have not forgotten how the beauty of the world struck you afresh, so that you looked long and said many times, “How fair a world it is!” like one who had made a discovery. It was such a look that Nanny gave to the hill and Caddam while she stood at her garden gate.
Gavin returned to the fire and watched a girl in it in an officer’s cloak playing at hide and seek with soldiers. After a time he sighed, then looked round sharply to see who had sighed, then, absent-mindedly, lifted the empty kettle and placed it on the glowing peats. He was standing glaring at the kettle, his arms folded, when Nanny returned from the well.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said, “o’ something that proves the lassie to be just an Egyptian. Ay, I noticed she wasna nane awed when I said you was the Auld Licht minister. Weel, I’se uphaud that came frae her living ower muckle in the open air. Is there no’ a smell o’ burning in the house?”
“I have noticed it,” Gavin answered, sniffing, “since you came in. I was busy until then, putting on the kettle. The smell is becoming worse.”
Nanny had seen the empty kettle on the fire as he began to speak, and so solved the mystery. Her first thought was to snatch the kettle out of the blaze, but remembering who had put it there, she dared not. She sidled toward the hearth instead, and saying craftily, “Ay, here it is; it’s a clout among the peats,” softly laid the kettle on the earthen floor. It was still red with sparks, however, when the gypsy reappeared.
“Who burned the kettle?” she asked, ignoring Nanny’s signs.
“Lassie,” Nanny said, “it was me;” but Gavin, flushing, confessed his guilt.
“Oh, you stupid!” exclaimed the Egyptian, shaking her two ounces of tea (which then cost six shillings the pound) in his face.
At this Nanny wrung her hands, crying, “That’s waur than swearing.”
“If men,” said the gypsy, severely, “would keep their hands in their pockets all day, the world’s affairs would be more easily managed.”
“Wheesht!” cried Nanny, “if Mr. Dishart cared to set his mind to it, he could make the kettle boil quicker than you or me. But his thochts is on higher things.”
“No higher than this,” retorted the gypsy, holding her hand level with her brow. “Confess, Mr. Dishart, that this is the exact height of what you were thinking about. See, Nanny, he is blushing as if I meant that he had been thinking about me. He cannot answer, Nanny: we have found him out.”
“And kindly of him it is no to answer,” said Nanny, who had been examining the gypsy’s various purchases; “for what could he answer, except that he would need to be sure o’ living a thousand years afore he could spare five minutes on you or me? Of course it would be different if we sat under him.”
“And yet,” said the Egyptian, with great solemnity, “he is to drink tea at that very table. I hope you are sensible of the honour, Nanny.”
“Am I no?” said Nanny, whose education had not included sarcasm. “I’m trying to keep frae thinking o’t till he’s gone, in case I should let the teapot fall.”
“You have nothing to thank me for, Nanny,” said Gavin, “but much for which to thank this — this — —”
“This haggarty-taggarty Egyptian,” suggested the girl. Then, looking at Gavin curiously, she said, “But my name is Babbie.”
“That’s short for Barbara,” said Nanny; “but Babbie what?”
“Yes, Babbie Watt,” replied the gypsy, as if one name were as good as another.
“Weel, then, lift the lid off the kettle, Babbie,” said Nanny, “for it’s boiling ower.”
Gavin looked at Nanny with admiration and envy, for she had said Babbie as coolly as if it was the name of a pepper-box.
Babbie tucked up her sleeves to wash Nanny’s cups and saucers, which even in the most prosperous days of the mud house had only been in use once a week, and Gavin was so eager to help that he bumped his head on the plate-rack.
“Sit there,” said Babbie, authoritatively, pointing, with a cup in her hand, to a stool, “and don’t rise till I give you permission.”
To Nanny’s amazement, he did as he was bid.
“I got the things in the little shop you told me of,” the Egyptian continued, addressing the mistress of the house, “but the horrid man would not give them to me until he had seen my money.”
“Enoch would be suspicious o’ you,” Nanny explained, “you being an Egyptian.”
“Ah,” said Babbie, with a side-glance at the minister, “I am only an Egyptian. Is that why you dislike me, Mr. Dishart?”
Gavin hesitated foolishly over his answer, and the Egyptian, with a towel round her waist, made a pretty gesture of despair.
“He neither likes you nor dislikes you,” Nanny explained; “you forget he’s a minister.”
“That is what I cannot endure,” said Babbie, putting the towel to her eyes, “to be neither liked nor disliked. Please hate me, Mr. Dishart, if you cannot lo — ove me.”
Her face was behind the towel, and Gavin could not decide whether it was the face or the towel that shook with agitation. He gave Nanny a look that asked, “Is she really crying?” and Nanny telegraphed back, “I question it.”
“Come, come,” said the minister, gallantly, “I did not say that I disliked you.”
Even this desperate compliment had not the desired effect, for the gypsy continued to sob behind her screen.
“I can honestly say,” went on Gavin, as solemnly as if he were making a statement in a court of justice, “that I like you.”
Then the Egyptian let drop her towel, and replied with equal solemnity:
“Oh, tank oo! Nanny, the minister says me is a dood ‘ittle dirl.”
“He didna gang that length,” said Nanny, sharply, to cover Gavin’s confusion. “Set the things, Babbie, and I’ll make the tea.”
The Egyptian obeyed demurely, pretending to wipe her eyes every time Gavin looked at her. He frowned at this, and then she affected to be too overcome to go on with her work.
“Tell me, Nanny,” she asked presently, “what sort of man this Enoch is, from whom I bought the things?”
“He is not very regular, I fear,” answered Gavin, who felt that he had sat silent and self-conscious on his stool too long.
“Do you mean that he drinks?” asked Babbie.
“No, I mean regular in his attendance.”
The Egyptian’s face showed no enlightenment.
“His attendance at church,” Gavin explained.
“He’s far frae it,” said Nanny, “and as a body kens, Joe Cruickshanks, the atheist, has the wite o’ that. The scoundrel telled Enoch that the great ministers in Edinbury and London believed in no hell except sic as your ain conscience made for you, and ever since syne Enoch has been careless about the future state.”
“Ah,” said Babbie, waving the Church aside, “what I want to know is whether he is a single man.”
“He is not,” Gavin replied; “but why do you want to know that?”
“Because single men are such gossips. I am sorry he is not single, as I want him to repeat to everybody what I told him.”
“Trust him to tell Susy,” said Nanny, “and Susy to tell the town.”
“His wife is a gossip?”
“Ay, she’s aye tonguing, especially about her teeth. They’re folk wi’ siller, and she has a set o’ false teeth. It’s fair scumfishing to hear her blawing about thae teeth, she’s so fleid we dinna ken that they’re false.”
Nanny had spoken jealously, but suddenly she trembled with apprehension.
“Babbie,” she cried, “you didna speak about the poorhouse to Enoch?”
The Egyptian shook her head, though of the poorhouse she had been forced to speak, for Enoch, having seen the doctor going home alone, insisted on knowing why.
“But I knew,” the gypsy said, “that the Thrums people would be very unhappy until they discovered where you get the money I am to give you, and as that is a secret, I hinted to Enoch that your benefactor is Mr. Dishart.”
“You should not have said that,” interposed Gavin. “I cannot foster such a deception.”
“They will foster it without your help,” the Egyptian said. “Besides, if you choose, you can say you get the money from a friend.”
“Ay, you can say that,” Nanny entreated with such eagerness that Babbie remarked a little bitterly:
“There is no fear of Nanny’s telling any one that the friend is a gypsy girl.”
“Na, na,” agreed Nanny, again losing Babbie’s sarcasm. “I winna let on. It’s so queer to be befriended by an Egyptian.”
“It is scarcely respectable,” Babbie said.
“It’s no,” answered simple Nanny.
I suppose Nanny’s unintentional cruelty did hurt Babbie as much as Gavin thought. She winced, and her face had two expressions, the one cynical, the other pained. Her mouth curled as if to tell the minister that gratitude was nothing to her, but her eyes had to struggle to keep back a tear. Gavin was touched, and she saw it, and for a moment they were two people who understood each other.
“I, at least,” Gavin said in a low voice, “will know who is the benefactress, and think none the worse of her because she is a gypsy.”
At this Babbie smiled gratefully to him, and then both laughed, for they had heard Nanny remarking to the kettle, “But I wouldna hae been nane angry if she had telled Enoch that the minister was to take his tea here. Susy’ll no believe’t though I tell her, as tell her I will.”
To Nanny the table now presented a rich appearance, for besides the teapot there were butter and loaf-bread and cheesies: a biscuit of which only Thrums knows the secret.
“Draw in your chair, Mr. Dishart,” she said, in suppressed excitement.
“Yes,” said Babbie, “you take this chair, Mr. Dishart, and Nanny will have that one, and I can sit humbly on the stool.”
But Nanny held up her hands in horror.
“Keep us a’!” she exclaimed; “the lassie thinks her and me is to sit down wi’ the minister! We’re no to gang that length, Babbie; we’re just to stand and serve him, and syne we’ll sit down when he has risen.”
“Delightful!” said Babbie, clapping her hands. “Nanny, you kneel on that side of him, and I will kneel on this. You will hold the butter and I the biscuits.”
But Gavin, as this girl was always forgetting, was a lord of creation.
“Sit down both of you at once!” he thundered, “I command you.”
Then the two women fell into their seats; Nanny in terror, Babbie affecting it.
SECOND COMING OF THE EGYPTIAN WOMAN.
The gypsy had been passing the house, perhaps on her way to Thrums for gossip, and it was only curiosity, born suddenly of Gavin’s cry, that made her enter. On finding herself in unexpected company she retained hold of the door, and to the amazed minister she seemed for a moment to have stepped into the mud house from his garden. Her eyes danced, however, as they recognised him, and then he hardened. “This is no place for you,” he was saying fiercely, when Nanny, too distraught to think, fell crying at the Egyptian’s feet.
“They are taking me to the poorhouse,” she sobbed; “dinna let them, dinna let them.”
The Egyptian’s arms clasped her, and the Egyptian kissed a sallow cheek that had once been as fair as yours, madam, who may read this story. No one had caressed Nanny for many years, but do you think she was too poor and old to care for these young arms around her neck? There are those who say that women cannot love each other, but it is not true. Woman is not undeveloped man, but something better, and Gavin and the doctor knew it as they saw Nanny clinging to her protector. When the gypsy turned with flashing eyes to the two men she might have been a mother guarding her child.
“How dare you!” she cried, stamping her foot; and they quaked like malefactors.
“You don’t see — —” Gavin began, but her indignation stopped him.
“You coward!” she said.
Even the doctor had been impressed, so that he now addressed the gypsy respectfully.
“This is all very well,” he said, “but a woman’s sympathy — —”
“A woman! — ah, if I could be a man for only five minutes!”
She clenched her little fists, and again turned to Nanny.
“You poor dear,” she said tenderly, “I won’t let them take you away.”
She looked triumphantly at both minister and doctor, as one who had foiled them in their cruel designs.
“Go!” she said, pointing grandly to the door.
“Is this the Egyptian of the riots,” the doctor said in a low voice to Gavin, “or is she a queen? Hoots, man, don’t look so shamefaced. We are not criminals. Say something.”
Then to the Egyptian Gavin said firmly --
“You mean well, but you are doing this poor woman a cruelty in holding out hopes to her that cannot be realised. Sympathy is not meal and bedclothes, and these are what she needs.”
“And you who live in luxury,” retorted the girl, “would send her to the poorhouse for them. I thought better of you!”
“Tuts!” said the doctor, losing patience, “Mr. Dishart gives more than any other man in Thrums to the poor, and he is not to be preached to by a gypsy. We are waiting for you, Nanny.”
“Ay, I’m coming,” said Nanny, leaving the Egyptian. “I’ll hae to gang, lassie. Dinna greet for me.”
But the Egyptian said, “No, you are not going. It is these men who are going. Go, sirs, and leave us.”
“And you will provide for Nanny?” asked the doctor contemptuously.
“And where is the siller to come from?”
“That is my affair, and Nanny’s. Begone, both of you. She shall never want again. See how the very mention of your going brings back life to her face.”
“I won’t begone,” the doctor said roughly, “till I see the colour of your siller.”
“Oh, the money,” said the Egyptian scornfully. She put her hand into her pocket confidently, as if used to well-filled purses, but could only draw out two silver pieces.
“I had forgotten,” she said aloud, though speaking to herself.
“I thought so,” said the cynical doctor. “Come, Nanny.”
“You presume to doubt me!” the Egyptian said, blocking his way to the door.
“How could I presume to believe you?” he answered. “You are a beggar by profession, and yet talk as if —— pooh, nonsense.”
“I would live on terrible little,” Nanny whispered, “and Sanders will be out again in August month.”
“Seven shillings a week,” rapped out the doctor.
“Is that all?” the Egyptian asked. “She shall have it.”
“At once. No, it is not possible to-night, but to-morrow I will bring five pounds; no, I will send it; no, you must come for it.”
“And where, O daughter of Dives, do you reside?” the doctor asked.
No doubt the Egyptian could have found a ready answer had her pity for Nanny been less sincere; as it was, she hesitated, wanting to propitiate the doctor, while holding her secret fast.
“I only asked,” McQueen said, eyeing her curiously, “because when I make an appointment I like to know where it is to be held. But I suppose you are suddenly to rise out of the ground as you have done to-day, and did six weeks ago.”
“Whether I rise out of the ground or not,” the gypsy said, keeping her temper with an effort, “there will be a five-pound note in my hand. You will meet me to-morrow about this hour at — say the Kaims of Cushie?”
“No,” said the doctor after a moment’s pause; “I won’t. Even if I went to the Kaims I should not find you there. Why can you not come to me?”
“Why do you carry a woman’s hair,” replied the Egyptian, “in that locket on your chain?”
Whether she was speaking of what she knew, or this was only a chance shot, I cannot tell, but the doctor stepped back from her hastily, and could not help looking down at the locket.
“Yes,” said the Egyptian calmly, “it is still shut; but why do you sometimes open it at nights?”
“Lassie,” the old doctor cried, “are you a witch?”
“Perhaps,” she said; “but I ask for no answer to my questions. If you have your secrets, why may I not have mine? Now will you meet me at the Kaims?”
“No; I distrust you more than ever. Even if you came, it would be to play with me as you have done already. How can a vagrant have five pounds in her pocket when she does not have five shillings on her back?”
“You are a cruel, hard man,” the Egyptian said, beginning to lose hope. “But, see,” she cried, brightening, “look at this ring. Do you know its value?”
She held up her finger, but the stone would not live in the dull light.
“I see it is gold,” the doctor said cautiously, and she smiled at the ignorance that made him look only at the frame.
“Certainly, it is gold,” said Gavin, equally stupid.
“Mercy on us!” Nanny cried; “I believe it’s what they call a diamond.”
“How did you come by it?” the doctor asked suspiciously.
“I thought we had agreed not to ask each other questions,” the Egyptian answered drily. “But, see, I will give it to you to hold in hostage. If I am not at the Kaims to get it back you can keep it.”
The doctor took the ring in his hand and examined it curiously.
“There is a quirk in this,” he said at last, “that I don’t like. Take back your ring, lassie. Mr. Dishart, give Nanny your arm, and I’ll carry her box to the machine.”
Now all this time Gavin had been in the dire distress of a man possessed of two minds, of which one said, “This is a true woman,” and the other, “Remember the seventeenth of October.” They were at war within him, and he knew that he must take a side, yet no sooner had he cast one out than he invited it back. He did not answer the doctor.
“Unless,” McQueen said, nettled by his hesitation, “you trust this woman’s word.”
Gavin tried honestly to weigh those two minds against each other, but could not prevent impulse jumping into one of the scales.
“You do trust me,” the Egyptian said, with wet eyes; and now that he looked on her again --
“Yes,” he said firmly, “I trust you,” and the words that had been so difficult to say were the right words. He had no more doubt of it.
“Just think a moment first,” the doctor warned him. “I decline to have anything to do with this matter. You will go to the Kaims for the siller?”
“If it is necessary,” said Gavin.
“It is necessary,” the Egyptian said.
“Then I will go.”
Nanny took his hand timidly, and would have kissed it had he been less than a minister.
“You dare not, man,” the doctor said gruffly, “make an appointment with this gypsy. Think of what will be said in Thrums.”
I honour Gavin for the way in which he took this warning. For him, who was watched from the rising of his congregation to their lying down, whose every movement was expected to be a text to Thrums, it was no small thing that he had promised. This he knew, but he only reddened because the doctor had implied an offensive thing in a woman’s presence.
“You forget yourself, doctor,” he said sharply.
“Send some one in your place,” advised the doctor, who liked the little minister.
“He must come himself and alone,” said the Egyptian. “You must both give me your promise not to mention who is Nanny’s friend, and she must promise too.”
“Well,” said the doctor, buttoning up his coat, “I cannot keep my horse freezing any longer. Remember, Mr. Dishart, you take the sole responsibility of this.”
“I do,” said Gavin, “and with the utmost confidence.”
“Give him the ring then, lassie,” said McQueen.
She handed the minister the ring, but he would not take it.
“I have your word,” he said; “that is sufficient.”
Then the Egyptian gave him the first look that he could think of afterwards without misgivings.
“So be it,” said the doctor. “Get the money, and I will say nothing about it, unless I have reason to think that it has been dishonestly come by. Don’t look so frightened at me, Nanny. I hope for your sake that her stocking-foot is full of gold.”
“Surely it’s worth risking,” Nanny said, not very brightly, “when the minister’s on her side.”
“Ay, but on whose side, Nanny?” asked the doctor. “Lassie, I bear you no grudge; will you not tell me who you are?”
“Only a puir gypsy, your honour,” said the girl, becoming mischievous now that she had gained her point; “only a wandering hallen-shaker, and will I tell you your fortune, my pretty gentleman?”
“No, you shan’t,” replied the doctor, plunging his hands so hastily into his pockets that Gavin laughed.
“I don’t need to look at your hand,” said the gypsy, “I can read your fortune in your face.”
She looked at him fixedly, so that he fidgeted.
“I see you,” said the Egyptian in a sepulchral voice, and speaking slowly, “become very frail. Your eyesight has almost gone. You are sitting alone in a cauld room, cooking your ain dinner ower a feeble fire. The soot is falling down the lum. Your bearish manners towards women have driven the servant lassie frae your house, and your wife beats you.”
“Ay, you spoil your prophecy there,” the doctor said, considerably relieved, “for I’m not married; my pipe’s the only wife I ever had.”
“You will be married by that time,” continued the Egyptian, frowning at this interruption, “for I see your wife. She is a shrew. She marries you in your dotage. She lauchs at you in company. She doesna allow you to smoke.”
“Away with you, you jade,” cried the doctor in a fury, and feeling nervously for his pipe. “Mr. Dishart, you had better stay and arrange this matter as you choose, but I want a word with you outside.”
“And you’re no angry wi’ me, doctor, are you?” asked Nanny wistfully. “You’ve been richt good to me, but I canna thole the thocht o’ that place. And, oh, doctor, you winna tell naebody that I was so near taen to it?”
In the garden McQueen said to Gavin: --
“You may be right, Mr. Dishart, in this matter, for there is this in our favour, that the woman can gain nothing by tricking us. She did seem to feel for Nanny. But who can she be? You saw she could put on and off the Scotch tongue as easily as if it were a cap.”
“She is as much a mystery to me as to you,” Gavin answered, “but she will give me the money, and that is all I ask of her.”
“Ay, that remains to be seen. But take care of yourself; a man’s second childhood begins when a woman gets hold of him.”
“Don’t alarm yourself about me, doctor. I daresay she is only one of those gypsies from the South. They are said to be wealthy, many of them, and even, when they like, to have a grand manner. The Thrums people had no doubt but that she was what she seemed to be.”
“Ay, but what does she seem to be? Even that puzzles me. And then there is this mystery about her which she admits herself, though perhaps only to play with us.”
“Perhaps,” said Gavin, “she is only taking precautions against her discovery by the police. You must remember her part in the riots.”
“Yes, but we never learned how she was able to play that part. Besides, there is no fear in her, or she would not have ventured back to Thrums. However, good luck attend you. But be wary. You saw how she kept her feet among her shalls and wills? Never trust a Scotch man or woman who does not come to grief among them.”
The doctor took his seat in the dogcart.
“And, Mr. Dishart,” he called out, “that was all nonsense about the locket.”
TRAGEDY OF A MUD HOUSE.
The dogcart bumped between the trees of Caddam, flinging Gavin and the doctor at each other as a wheel rose on some beech-root or sank for a moment in a pool. I suppose the wood was a pretty sight that day, the pines only white where they had met the snow, as if the numbed painter had left his work unfinished, the brittle twigs snapping overhead, the water as black as tar. But it matters little what the wood was like. Within a squirrel’s leap of it an old woman was standing at the door of a mud house listening for the approach of the trap that was to take her to the poorhouse. Can you think of the beauty of the day now?
Nanny was not crying. She had redd up her house for the last time and put on her black merino. Her mouth was wide open while she listened. If you had addressed her you would have thought her polite and stupid. Look at her. A flabby-faced woman she is now, with a swollen body, and no one has heeded her much these thirty years. I can tell you something; it is almost droll. Nanny Webster was once a gay flirt, and in Airlie Square there is a weaver with an unsteady head who thought all the earth of her. His loom has taken a foot from his stature, and gone are Nanny’s raven locks on which he used to place his adoring hand. Down in Airlie Square he is weaving for his life, and here is Nanny, ripe for the poorhouse, and between them is the hill where they were lovers. That is all the story save that when Nanny heard the dogcart she screamed.
No neighbour was with her. If you think this hard, it is because you do not understand. Perhaps Nanny had never been very lovable except to one man, and him, it is said, she lost through her own vanity; but there was much in her to like. The neighbours, of whom there were two not a hundred yards away, would have been with her now but they feared to hurt her feelings. No heart opens to sympathy without letting in delicacy, and these poor people knew that Nanny would not like them to see her being taken away. For a week they had been aware of what was coming, and they had been most kind to her, but that hideous word, the poorhouse, they had not uttered. Poorhouse is not to be spoken in Thrums, though it is nothing to tell a man that you see death in his face. Did Nanny think they knew where she was going? was a question they whispered to each other, and her suffering eyes cut scars on their hearts. So now that the hour had come they called their children into their houses and pulled down their blinds.
“If you would like to see her by yourself,” the doctor said eagerly to Gavin, as the horse drew up at Nanny’s gate, “I’ll wait with the horse. Not,” he added, hastily, “that I feel sorry for her. We are doing her a kindness.”
They dismounted together, however, and Nanny, who had run from the trap into the house, watched them from her window.
McQueen saw her and said glumly, “I should have come alone, for if you pray she is sure to break down. Mr. Dishart, could you not pray cheerfully?”
“You don’t look very cheerful yourself,” Gavin said sadly.
“Nonsense,” answered the doctor. “I have no patience with this false sentiment. Stand still, Lightning, and be thankful you are not your master to-day.”
The door stood open, and Nanny was crouching against the opposite wall of the room, such a poor, dull kitchen, that you would have thought the furniture had still to be brought into it. The blanket and the piece of old carpet that was Nanny’s coverlet were already packed in her box. The plate rack was empty. Only the round table and the two chairs, and the stools and some pans were being left behind.
“Well, Nanny,” the doctor said, trying to bluster, “I have come, and you see Mr. Dishart is with me.”
Nanny rose bravely. She knew the doctor was good to her, and she wanted to thank him. I have not seen a great deal of the world myself, but often the sweet politeness of the aged poor has struck me as beautiful. Nanny dropped a curtesy, an ungainly one maybe, but it was an old woman giving the best she had.
“Thank you kindly, sirs,” she said; and then two pairs of eyes dropped before hers.
“Please to take a chair,” she added timidly. It is strange to know that at that awful moment, for let none tell me it was less than awful, the old woman was the one who could speak.
Both men sat down, for they would have hurt Nanny by remaining standing. Some ministers would have known the right thing to say to her, but Gavin dared not let himself speak. I have again to remind you that he was only one-and-twenty.
“I’m drouthy, Nanny,” the doctor said, to give her something to do, “and I would be obliged for a drink of water.”
Nanny hastened to the pan that stood behind her door, but stopped before she reached it.
“It’s toom,” she said. “I — I didna think I needed to fill it this morning.” She caught the doctor’s eye, and could only half restrain a sob. “I couldna help that,” she said, apologetically. “I’m richt angry at myself for being so ungrateful like.”
The doctor thought it best that they should depart at once. He rose.
“Oh, no, doctor,” cried Nanny in alarm.
“But you are ready?”
“Ay,” she said, “I have been ready this twa hours, but you micht wait a minute. Hendry Munn and Andrew Allardyce is coming yont the road, and they would see me.”
“Wait, doctor,” Gavin said.
“Thank you kindly, sir,” answered Nanny.
“But Nanny,” the doctor said, “you must remember what I told you about the poo — , about the place you are going to. It is a fine house, and you will be very happy in it.”
“Ay, I’ll be happy in’t,” Nanny faltered, “but, doctor, if I could just hae bidden on here though I wasna happy!”
“Think of the food you will get; broth nearly every day.”
“It — it’ll be terrible enjoyable,” Nanny said.
“And there will be pleasant company for you always,” continued the doctor, “and a nice room to sit in. Why, after you have been there a week, you won’t be the same woman.”
“That’s it!” cried Nanny with sudden passion. “Na, na; I’ll be a woman on the poor’s rates. Oh, mither, mither, you little thocht when you bore me that I would come to this!”
“Nanny,” the doctor said, rising again, “I am ashamed of you.”
“I humbly speir your forgiveness, sir,” she said, “and you micht bide just a wee yet. I’ve been ready to gang these twa hours, but now that the machine is at the gate, I dinna ken how it is, but I’m terrible sweer to come awa’. Oh, Mr. Dishart, it’s richt true what the doctor says about the — the place, but I canna just take it in. I’m — I’m gey auld.”
“You will often get out to see your friends,” was all Gavin could say.
“Na, na, na,” she cried, “dinna say that; I’ll gang, but you mauna bid me ever come out, except in a hearse. Dinna let onybody in Thrums look on my face again.”
“We must go,” said the doctor firmly. “Put on your mutch, Nanny.”
“I dinna need to put on a mutch,” she answered, with a faint flush of pride. “I have a bonnet.”
She took the bonnet from her bed, and put it on slowly.
“Are you sure there’s naebody looking?” she asked.
The doctor glanced at the minister, and Gavin rose.
“Let us pray,” he said, and the three went down on their knees.
It was not the custom of Auld Licht ministers to leave any house without offering up a prayer in it, and to us it always seemed that when Gavin prayed, he was at the knees of God. The little minister pouring himself out in prayer in a humble room, with awed people around him who knew much more of the world than he, his voice at times thick and again a squeal, and his hands clasped not gracefully, may have been only a comic figure, but we were old-fashioned, and he seemed to make us better men. If I only knew the way, I would draw him as he was, and not fear to make him too mean a man for you to read about. He had not been long in Thrums before he knew that we talked much of his prayers, and that doubtless puffed him up a little. Sometimes, I daresay, he rose from his knees feeling that he had prayed well to-day, which is a dreadful charge to bring against any one. But it was not always so, nor was it so now.
I am not speaking harshly of this man, whom I have loved beyond all others, when I say that Nanny came between him and his prayer. Had he been of God’s own image, unstained, he would have forgotten all else in his Maker’s presence, but Nanny was speaking too, and her words choked his. At first she only whispered, but soon what was eating her heart burst out painfully, and she did not know that the minister had stopped.
They were such moans as these that brought him back to earth: --
“I’ll hae to gang.... I’m a base woman no’ to be mair thankfu’ to them that is so good to me.... I dinna like to prig wi’ them to take a roundabout road, and I’m sair fleid a’ the Roods will see me.... If it could just be said to poor Sanders when he comes back that I died hurriedly, syne he would be able to haud up his head.... Oh, mither!... I wish terrible they had come and ta’en me at nicht.... It’s a dogcart, and I was praying it micht be a cart, so that they could cover me wi’ straw.”
“This is more than I can stand,” the doctor cried.
Nanny rose frightened.
“I’ve tried you, sair,” she said, “but, oh, I’m grateful, and I’m ready now.”
They all advanced toward the door without another word, and Nanny even tried to smile. But in the middle of the floor something came over her, and she stood there. Gavin took her hand, and it was cold. She looked from one to the other, her mouth opening and shutting.
“I canna help it,” she said.
“It’s cruel hard,” muttered the doctor. “I knew this woman when she was a lassie.”
The little minister stretched out his hands.
“Have pity on her, O God!” he prayed, with the presumptuousness of youth.
Nanny heard the words.
“Oh, God,” she cried, “you micht!”
God needs no minister to tell Him what to do, but it was His will that the poorhouse should not have this woman. He made use of a strange instrument, no other than the Egyptian, who now opened the mudhouse door.
TELLS IN A WHISPER OF MAN’S FALL DURING THE CURLING SEASON.
No snow could be seen in Thrums by the beginning of the year, though clods of it lay in Waster Lunny’s fields, where his hens wandered all day as if looking for something they had dropped. A black frost had set in, and one walking on the glen road could imagine that through the cracks in it he saw a loch glistening. From my door I could hear the roar of curling stones at Rashie-bog, which is almost four miles nearer Thrums. On the day I am recalling, I see that I only made one entry in my diary, “At last bought Waster Lunny’s bantams.” Well do I remember the transaction, and no wonder, for I had all but bought the bantams every day for a six months.
About noon the doctor’s dogcart was observed by all the Tenements standing at the Auld Licht manse. The various surmises were wrong. Margaret had not been suddenly taken ill; Jean had not swallowed a darning-needle; the minister had not walked out at his study window in a moment of sublime thought. Gavin stepped into the dogcart, which at once drove off in the direction of Rashie-bog, but equally in error were those who said that the doctor was making a curler of him.
There was, however, ground for gossip; for Thrums folk seldom called in a doctor until it was too late to cure them, and McQueen was not the man to pay social visits. Of his skill we knew fearsome stories, as that, by looking at Archie Allardyce, who had come to broken bones on a ladder, he discovered which rung Archie fell from. When he entered a stuffy room he would poke his staff through the window to let in fresh air, and then fling down a shilling to pay for the breakage. He was deaf in the right ear, and therefore usually took the left side of prosy people, thus, as he explained, making a blessing of an affliction. “A pity I don’t hear better?” I have heard him say. “Not at all. If my misfortune, as you call it, were to be removed, you can’t conceive how I should miss my deaf ear.” He was a fine fellow, though brusque, and I never saw him without his pipe until two days before we buried him, which was five-and-twenty years ago come Martinmas.
“We’re all quite weel,” Jean said apprehensively as she answered his knock on the manse door, and she tried to be pleasant, too, for well she knew that, if a doctor willed it, she could have fever in five minutes.
“Ay, Jean, I’ll soon alter that,” he replied ferociously. “Is the master in?”
“He’s at his sermon,” Jean said with importance.
To interrupt the minister at such a moment seemed sacrilege to her, for her up-bringing had been good. Her mother had once fainted in the church, but though the family’s distress was great, they neither bore her out, nor signed to the kirk-officer to bring water. They propped her up in the pew in a respectful attitude, joining in the singing meanwhile, and she recovered in time to look up 2nd Chronicles, 21st and 7th.
“Tell him I want to speak to him at the door,” said the doctor fiercely, “or I’ll bleed you this minute.”
McQueen would not enter, because his horse might have seized the opportunity to return stablewards. At the houses where it was accustomed to stop, it drew up of its own accord, knowing where the Doctor’s “cases” were as well as himself, but it resented new patients.
“You like misery, I think, Mr. Dishart,” McQueen said when Gavin came to him, “at least I am always finding you in the thick of it, and that is why I am here now. I have a rare job for you if you will jump into the machine. You know Nanny Webster, who lives on the edge of Windyghoul? No, you don’t, for she belongs to the other kirk. Well, at all events, you knew her brother, Sanders, the mole-catcher?”
“I remember him. You mean the man who boasted so much about seeing a ball at Lord Rintoul’s place?”
“The same, and, as you may know, his boasting about maltreating policemen whom he never saw led to his being sentenced to nine months in gaol lately.”
“That is the man,” said Gavin. “I never liked him.”
“No, but his sister did,” McQueen answered, drily, “and with reason, for he was her breadwinner, and now she is starving.”
“Anything I can give her — —”
“Would be too little, sir.”
“But the neighbours — —”
“She has few near her, and though the Thrums poor help each other bravely, they are at present nigh as needy as herself. Nanny is coming to the poorhouse, Mr. Dishart.”
“God help her!” exclaimed Gavin.
“Nonsense,” said the doctor, trying to make himself a hard man. “She will be properly looked after there, and — and in time she will like it.”
“Don’t let my mother hear you speaking of taking an old woman to that place,” Gavin said, looking anxiously up the stair. I cannot pretend that Margaret never listened.
“You all speak as if the poorhouse was a gaol,” the doctor said testily. “But so far as Nanny is concerned, everything is arranged. I promised to drive her to the poorhouse to-day, and she is waiting for me now. Don’t look at me as if I was a brute. She is to take some of her things with her to the poorhouse and the rest is to be left until Sanders’s return, when she may rejoin him. At least we said that to her to comfort her.”
“You want me to go with you?”
“Yes, though I warn you it may be a distressing scene; indeed, the truth is that I am loth to face Nanny alone to-day. Mr. Duthie should have accompanied me, for the Websters are Established Kirk; ay, and so he would if Rashie-bog had not been bearing. A terrible snare this curling, Mr. Dishart” — here the doctor sighed—”I have known Mr. Duthie wait until midnight struck on Sabbath and then be off to Rashie-bog with a torch.”
“I will go with you,” Gavin said, putting on his coat.
“Jump in then. You won’t smoke? I never see a respectable man not smoking, sir, but I feel indignant with him for such sheer waste of time.”
Gavin smiled at this, and Snecky Hobart, who happened to be keeking over the manse dyke, bore the news to the Tenements.
“I’ll no sleep the nicht,” Snecky said, “for wondering what made the minister lauch. Ay, it would be no trifle.”
A minister, it is certain, who wore a smile on his face would never have been called to the Auld Licht kirk, for life is a wrestle with the devil, and only the frivolous think to throw him without taking off their coats. Yet, though Gavin’s zeal was what the congregation reverenced, many loved him privately for his boyishness. He could unbend at marriages, of which he had six on the last day of the year, and at every one of them he joked (the same joke) like a layman. Some did not approve of his playing at the teetotum for ten minutes with Kitty Dundas’s invalid son, but the way Kitty boasted about it would have disgusted anybody. At the present day there are probably a score of Gavins in Thrums, all called after the little minister, and there is one Gavinia, whom he hesitated to christen. He made humorous remarks (the same remark) about all these children, and his smile as he patted their heads was for thinking over when one’s work was done for the day.
The doctor’s horse clattered up the Backwynd noisily, as if a minister behind made no difference to it. Instead of climbing the Roods, however, the nearest way to Nanny’s, it went westward, which Gavin, in a reverie, did not notice. The truth must be told. The Egyptian was again in his head.
“Have I fallen deaf in the left ear, too?” said the doctor. “I see your lips moving, but I don’t catch a syllable.”
Gavin started, coloured, and flung the gypsy out of the trap.
“Why are we not going up the Roods?” he asked.
“Well,” said the doctor slowly, “at the top of the Roods there is a stance for circuses, and this old beast of mine won’t pass it. You know, unless you are behind in the clashes and clavers of Thrums, that I bought her from the manager of a travelling show. She was the horse (‘Lightning’ they called her) that galloped round the ring at a mile an hour, and so at the top of the Roods she is still unmanageable. She once dragged me to the scene of her former triumphs, and went revolving round it, dragging the machine after her.”
“If you had not explained that,” said Gavin, “I might have thought that you wanted to pass by Rashie-bog.”
The doctor, indeed, was already standing up to catch a first glimpse of the curlers.
“Well,” he admitted, “I might have managed to pass the circus ring, though what I have told you is true. However, I have not come this way merely to see how the match is going. I want to shame Mr. Duthie for neglecting his duty. It will help me to do mine, for the Lord knows I am finding it hard, with the music of these stones in my ears.”
“I never saw it played before,” Gavin said, standing up in his turn. “What a din they make! McQueen, I believe they are fighting!”
“No, no,” said the excited doctor, “they are just a bit daft. That’s the proper spirit for the game. Look, that’s the baron-bailie near standing on his head, and there’s Mr. Duthie off his head a’ thegither. Yon’s twa weavers and a mason cursing the laird, and the man wi’ the besom is the Master of Crumnathie.”
“A democracy, at all events,” said Gavin.
“By no means,” said the doctor, “it’s an aristocracy of intellect. Gee up, Lightning, or the frost will be gone before we are there.”
“It is my opinion, doctor,” said Gavin, “that you will have bones to set before that game is finished. I can see nothing but legs now.”
“Don’t say a word against curling, sir, to me,” said McQueen, whom the sight of a game in which he must not play had turned crusty. “Dangerous! It’s the best medicine I know of. Look at that man coming across the field. It is Jo Strachan. Well, sir, curling saved Jo’s life after I had given him up. You don’t believe me? Hie, Jo, Jo Strachan, come here and tell the minister how curling put you on your legs again.”
Strachan came forward, a tough, little, wizened man, with red flannel round his ears to keep out the cold.
“It’s gospel what the doctor says, Mr. Dishart,” he declared. “Me and my brither Sandy was baith ill, and in the same bed, and the doctor had hopes o’ Sandy, but nane o’ me. Ay, weel, when I heard that, I thocht I micht as weel die on the ice as in my bed, so I up and on wi’ my claethes. Sandy was mad at me, for he was no curler, and he says, ‘Jo Strachan, if you gang to Rashie-bog you’ll assuredly be brocht hame a corp.’ I didna heed him, though, and off I gaed.”
“And I see you did not die,” said Gavin.
“Not me,” answered the fish cadger, with a grin. “Na, but the joke o’t is, it was Sandy that died.”
“Not the joke, Jo,” corrected the doctor, “the moral.”
“Ay, the moral; I’m aye forgetting the word.”
McQueen, enjoying Gavin’s discomfiture, turned Lightning down the Rashie-bog road, which would be impassable as soon as the thaw came. In summer Rashie-bog is several fields in which a cart does not sink unless it stands still, but in winter it is a loch with here and there a spring where dead men are said to lie. There are no rushes at its east end, and here the dogcart drew up near the curlers, a crowd of men dancing, screaming, shaking their fists and sweeping, while half a hundred onlookers got in their way, gesticulating and advising.
“Hold me tight,” the doctor whispered to Gavin, “or I’ll be leaving you to drive Nanny to the poorhouse by yourself.”
He had no sooner said this than he tried to jump out of the trap.
“You donnert fule, John Robbie,” he shouted to a player, “soop her up, man, soop her up; no, no, dinna, dinna; leave her alane. Bailie, leave her alane, you blazing idiot. Mr. Dishart, let me go; what do you mean, sir, by hanging on to my coat tails? Dang it all, Duthie’s winning. He has it, he has it!”
“You’re to play, doctor?” some cried, running to the dogcart. “We hae missed you sair.”
“Jeames, I — I — . No, I daurna.”
“Then we get our licks. I never saw the minister in sic form. We can do nothing against him.”
“Then,” cried McQueen, “I’ll play. Come what will, I’ll play. Let go my tails, Mr. Dishart, or I’ll cut them off. Duty? Fiddlesticks!”
“Shame on you, sir,” said Gavin; “yes, and on you others who would entice him from his duty.”
“Shame!” the doctor cried. “Look at Mr. Duthie. Is he ashamed? And yet that man has been reproving me for a twelvemonths because I’ve refused to become one of his elders. Duthie,” he shouted, “think shame of yourself for curling this day.”
Mr. Duthie had carefully turned his back to the trap, for Gavin’s presence in it annoyed him. We seldom care to be reminded of our duty by seeing another do it. Now, however, he advanced to the dogcart, taking the far side of Gavin.
“Put on your coat, Mr. Duthie,” said the doctor, “and come with me to Nanny Webster’s. You promised.”
Mr. Duthie looked quizzically at Gavin, and then at the sky.
“The thaw may come at any moment,” he said.
“I think the frost is to hold,” said Gavin.
“It may hold over to-morrow,” Mr. Duthie admitted; “but to-morrow’s the Sabbath, and so a lost day.”
“A what?” exclaimed Gavin, horrified.
“I only mean,” Mr. Duthie answered, colouring, “that we can’t curl on the Lord’s day. As for what it may be like on Monday, no one can say. No, doctor, I won’t risk it. We’re in the middle of a game, man.”
Gavin looked very grave.
“I see what you are thinking, Mr. Dishart,” the old minister said doggedly; “but then, you don’t curl. You are very wise. I have forbidden my sons to curl.”
“Then you openly snap your fingers at your duty, Mr. Duthie?” said the doctor, loftily. (“You can let go my tails now, Mr. Dishart, for the madness has passed.”)
“None of your virtuous airs, McQueen,” said Mr. Duthie, hotly. “What was the name of the doctor that warned women never to have bairns while it was hauding?”
“And what,” retorted McQueen, “was the name of the minister that told his session he would neither preach nor pray while the black frost lasted?”
“Hoots, doctor,” said Duthie, “don’t lose your temper because I’m in such form.”
“Don’t lose yours, Duthie, because I aye beat you.”
“You beat me, McQueen! Go home, sir, and don’t talk havers. Who beat you at — —”
“Who made you sing small at — —”
“Who won — —”
“Who — —”
“Who — —”
“I’ll play you on Monday for whatever you like!” shrieked the doctor.
“If it holds,” cried the minister, “I’ll be here the whole day. Name the stakes yourself. A stone?”
“No,” the doctor said, “but I’ll tell you what we’ll play for. You’ve been dinging me doited about that eldership, and we’ll play for’t. If you win I accept office.”
“Done,” said the minister, recklessly.
The dogcart was now turned toward Windyghoul, its driver once more good-humoured, but Gavin silent.
“You would have been the better of my deaf ear just now, Mr. Dishart,” McQueen said after the loch had been left behind. “Aye, and I’m thinking my pipe would soothe you. But don’t take it so much to heart, man. I’ll lick him easily. He’s a decent man, the minister, but vain of his play, ridiculously vain. However, I think the sight of you, in the place that should have been his, has broken his nerve for this day, and our side may win yet.”
“I believe,” Gavin said, with sudden enlightenment, “that you brought me here for that purpose.”
“Maybe,” chuckled the doctor; “maybe.” Then he changed the subject suddenly. “Mr. Dishart,” he asked, “were you ever in love?”
“Never!” answered Gavin violently.
“Well, well,” said the doctor, “don’t terrify the horse. I have been in love myself. It’s bad, but it’s nothing to curling.”
the little minister
First published serially in Good Words 1891