SCENE AT THE SPITTAL.
Within an hour after I had left him, Waster Lunny walked into the school-house and handed me his snuff-mull, which I declined politely. It was with this ceremony that we usually opened our conversations.
“I’ve seen the post,” he said, “and he tells me there has been a queer ploy at the Spittal. It’s a wonder the marriage hasna been turned into a burial, and all because o’ that Highland stirk, Lauchlan Campbell.”
Waster Lunny was a man who had to retrace his steps in telling a story if he tried short cuts, and so my custom was to wait patiently while he delved through the ploughed fields that always lay between him and his destination.
“As you ken, Rintoul’s so little o’ a Scotchman that he’s no muckle better than an Englisher. That maun be the reason he hadna mair sense than to tramp on a Highlandman’s ancestors, as he tried to tramp on Lauchlan’s this day.”
“If Lord Rintoul insulted the piper,” I suggested, giving the farmer a helping hand cautiously, “it would be through inadvertence. Rintoul only bought the Spittal a year ago, and until then, I daresay, he had seldom been on our side of the Border.”
This was a foolish interruption, for it set Waster Lunny off in a new direction.
“That’s what Elspeth says. Says she, ‘When the earl has grand estates in England, what for does he come to a barren place like the Spittal to be married? It’s gey like,’ she says, ‘as if he wanted the marriage to be got by quietly; a thing,’ says she, ‘that no woman can stand. Furthermore,’ Elspeth says, ‘how has the marriage been postponed twice?’ We ken what the servants at the Spittal says to that, namely, that the young lady is no keen to take him, but Elspeth winna listen to sic arguments. She says either the earl had grown timid (as mony a man does) when the wedding-day drew near, or else his sister that keeps his house is mad at the thocht o’ losing her place; but as for the young leddy’s being sweer, says Elspeth, ‘an earl’s an earl however auld he is, and a lassie’s a lassie however young she is, and weel she kens you’re never sure o’ a man’s no changing his mind about you till you’re tied to him by law, after which it doesna so muckle matter whether he changes his mind about you or no.’ Ay, there’s a quirk in it some gait, dominie; but it’s a deep water Elspeth canna bottom.”
“It is,” I agreed; “but you were to tell me what Birse told you of the disturbance at the Spittal.”
“Ay, weel,” he answered, “the post puts the wite o’t on her little leddyship, as they call her, though she winna be a leddyship till the morn. All I can say is that if the earl was saft enough to do sic a thing out of fondness for her, it’s time he was married on her, so that he may come to his senses again. That’s what I say; but Elspeth conters me, of course, and says she, ‘If the young leddy was so careless o’ insulting other folks’ ancestors, it proves she has nane o’ her ain; for them that has china plates themsel’s is the maist careful no to break the china plates of others.’”
“But what was the insult? Was Lauchlan dismissed?”
“Na, faags! It was waur than that. Dominie, you’re dull in the uptake compared to Elspeth. I hadna telled her half the story afore she jaloused the rest. However, to begin again; there’s great feasting and rejoicings gaen on at the Spittal the now, and also a banquet, which the post says is twa dinners in one. Weel, there’s a curran Ogilvys among the guests, and it was them that egged on her little leddyship to make the daring proposal to the earl. What was the proposal? It was no less than that the twa pipers should be ordered to play ‘The Bonny House o’ Airlie.’ Dominie, I wonder you can tak it so calm when you ken that’s the Ogilvy’s sang, and that it’s aimed at the clan o’ Campbell.”
“Pooh!” I said. “The Ogilvys and the Campbells used to be mortal enemies, but the feud has been long forgotten.”
“Ay, I’ve heard tell,” Waster Lunny said sceptically, “that Airlie and Argyle shakes hands now like Christians; but I’m thinking that’s just afore the Queen. Dinna speak now, for I’m in the thick o’t. Her little leddyship was all hinging in gold and jewels, the which winna be her ain till the morn; and she leans ower to the earl and whispers to him to get the pipers to play ‘The Bonny House.’ He wasna willing, for says he, ‘There’s Ogilvys at the table, and ane o’ the pipers is a Campbell, and we’ll better let sleeping dogs lie.’ However, the Ogilvys lauched at his caution; and he was so infatuated wi’ her little leddyship that he gae in, and he cried out to the pipers to strike up ‘The Bonny House.’”
Waster Lunny pulled his chair nearer me and rested his hand on my knees.
“Dominie,” he said in a voice that fell now and again into a whisper, “them looking on swears that when Lauchlan Campbell heard these monstrous orders his face became ugly and black, so that they kent in a jiffy what he would do. It’s said a’ body jumped back frae him in a sudden dread, except poor Angus, the other piper, wha was busy tuning up for ‘The Bonny House.’ Weel, Angus had got no farther in the tune than the first skirl when Lauchlan louped at him, and ripped up the startled crittur’s pipes wi’ his dirk. The pipes gae a roar o’ agony like a stuck swine, and fell gasping on the floor. What happened next was that Lauchlan wi’ his dirk handy for onybody that micht try to stop him, marched once round the table, playing ‘The Campbells are Coming,’ and then straucht out o’ the Spittal, his chest far afore him, and his head so weel back that he could see what was going on ahint. Frae the Spittal to here he never stopped that fearsome tune, and I’se warrant he’s blawing away at it at this moment through the streets o’ Thrums.”
Waster Lunny was not in his usual spirits, or he would have repeated his story before he left me, for he had usually as much difficulty in coming to an end as in finding a beginning. The drought was to him as serious a matter as death in the house, and as little to be forgotten for a lengthened period.
“There’s to be a prayer-meeting for rain in the Auld Licht kirk the night,” he told me as I escorted him as far as my side of the Quharity, now almost a dead stream, pitiable to see, “and I’m gaen; though I’m sweer to leave thae puir cattle o’ mine. You should see how they look at me when I gie them mair o’ that rotten grass to eat. It’s eneuch to mak a man greet, for what richt hae I to keep kye when I canna meat them?”
Waster Lunny has said to me more than once that the great surprise of his life was when Elspeth was willing to take him. Many a time, however, I have seen that in him which might have made any weaver’s daughter proud of such a man, and I saw it again when we came to the river side.
“I’m no ane o’ thae farmers,” he said, truthfully, “that’s aye girding at the weather, and Elspeth and me kens that we hae been dealt wi’ bountifully since we took this farm wi’ gey anxious hearts. That woman, dominie, is eneuch to put a brave face on a coward, and it’s no langer syne than yestreen when I was sitting in the dumps, looking at the aurora borealis, which I canna but regard as a messenger o’ woe, that she put her hand on my shoulder and she says, ‘Waster Lunny, twenty year syne we began life thegither wi’ nothing but the claethes on our back, and an it please God we can begin it again, for I hae you and you hae me, and I’m no cast down if you’re no.’ Dominie, is there mony sic women in the warld as that?”
“Many a one,” I said.
“Ay, man, it shamed me, for I hae a kind o’ delight in angering Elspeth, just to see what she’ll say. I could hae ta’en her on my knee at that minute, but the bairns was there, and so it wouldna hae dune. But I cheered her up, for, after all, the drought canna put us so far back as we was twenty years syne, unless it’s true what my father said, that the aurora borealis is the devil’s rainbow. I saw it sax times in July month, and it made me shut my een. You was out admiring it, dominie, but I can never forget that it was seen in the year twelve just afore the great storm. I was only a laddie then, but I mind how that awful wind stripped a’ the standing corn in the glen in less time than we’ve been here at the water’s edge. It was called the deil’s besom. My father’s hinmost words to me was, ‘It’s time eneuch to greet, laddie, when you see the aurora borealis.’ I mind he was so complete ruined in an hour that he had to apply for relief frae the poor’s rates. Think o’ that, and him a proud man. He would tak’ nothing till one winter day when we was a’ starving, and syne I gaed wi’ him to speir for’t, and he telled me to grip his hand ticht, so that the cauldness o’ mine micht gie him courage. They were doling out the charity in the Town’s House, and I had never been in’t afore. I canna look at it now without thinking o’ that day when me and my father gaed up the stair thegither. Mr. Duthie was presiding at the time, and he wasna muckle older than Mr. Dishart is now. I mind he speired for proof that we was needing, and my father couldna speak. He just pointed at me. ‘But you have a good coat on your back yoursel’,’ Mr. Duthie said, for there were mony waiting, sair needing. ‘It was lended him to come here,’ I cried, and without a word my father opened the coat, and they saw he had nothing on aneath, and his skin blue wi ‘cauld. Dominie, Mr. Duthie handed him one shilling and saxpence, and my father’s fingers closed greedily on’t for a minute, and syne it fell to the ground. They put it back in his hand, and it slipped out again, and Mr. Duthie gave it back to him, saying, ‘Are you so cauld as that?’ But, oh, man, it wasna cauld that did it, but shame o’ being on the rates. The blood a’ ran to my father’s head, and syne left it as quick, and he flung down the siller and walked out o’ the Town House wi’ me running after him. We warstled through that winter, God kens how, and it’s near a pleasure to me to think o’t now, for, rain or no rain, I can never be reduced to sic straits again.”
The farmer crossed the water without using the stilts which were no longer necessary, and I little thought, as I returned to the school-house, what terrible things were to happen before he could offer me his snuff-mull again. Serious as his talk had been it was neither of drought nor of the incident at the Spittal that I sat down to think. My anxiety about Gavin came back to me until I was like a man imprisoned between walls of his own building. It may be that my presentiments of that afternoon look gloomier now than they were, because I cannot return to them save over a night of agony, black enough to darken any time connected with it. Perhaps my spirits only fell as the wind rose, for wind ever takes me back to Harvie, and when I think of Harvie my thoughts are of the saddest. I know that I sat for some hours, now seeing Gavin pay the penalty of marrying the Egyptian, and again drifting back to my days with Margaret, until the wind took to playing tricks with me, so that I heard Adam Dishart enter our home by the sea every time the school-house door shook.
I became used to the illusion after starting several times, and thus when the door did open, about seven o’clock, it was only the wind rushing to my fire like a shivering dog that made me turn my head. Then I saw the Egyptian staring at me, and though her sudden appearance on my threshold was a strange thing, I forgot it in the whiteness of her face. She was looking at me like one who has asked a question of life or death, and stopped her heart for the reply.
“What is it?” I cried, and for a moment I believe I was glad she did not answer. She seemed to have told me already as much as I could bear.
“He has not heard,” she said aloud in an expressionless voice, and, turning, would have slipped away without another word.
“Is any one dead?” I asked, seizing her hands and letting them fall, they were so clammy. She nodded, and trying to speak could not.
“He is dead,” she said at last in a whisper. “Mr. Dishart is dead,” and she sat down quietly.
At that I covered my face, crying, “God help Margaret!” and then she rose, saying fiercely, so that I drew back from her, “There is no Margaret; he only cared for me.”
“She is his mother,” I said hoarsely, and then she smiled to me, so that I thought her a harmless mad thing. “He was killed by a piper called Lauchlan Campbell,” she said, looking up at me suddenly. “It was my fault.”
“Poor Margaret!” I wailed.
“And poor Babbie,” she entreated pathetically; “will no one say, ‘Poor Babbie’?”
BEGINNING OF THE TWENTY-FOUR HOURS.
I can tell still how the whole of the glen was engaged about the hour of noon on the fourth of August month; a day to be among the last forgotten by any of us, though it began as quietly as a roaring March. At the Spittal, between which and Thrums this is a halfway house, were gathered two hundred men in kilts, and many gentry from the neighboring glens, to celebrate the earl’s marriage, which was to take place on the morrow, and thither, too, had gone many of my pupils to gather gossip, at which girls of six are trustier hands than boys of twelve. Those of us, however, who were neither children nor of gentle blood, remained at home, the farmers more taken up with the want of rain, now become a calamity, than with an old man’s wedding, and their womenfolk wringing their hands for rain also, yet finding time to marvel at the marriage’s taking place at the Spittal instead of in England, of which the ignorant spoke vaguely as an estate of the bride’s.
For my own part I could talk of the disastrous drought with Waster Lunny as I walked over his parched fields, but I had not such cause as he to brood upon it by day and night; and the ins and outs of the earl’s marriage were for discussing at a tea-table, where there were women to help one to conclusions, rather than for the reflections of a solitary dominie, who had seen neither bride nor bridegroom. So it must be confessed that when I might have been regarding the sky moodily, or at the Spittal, where a free table that day invited all, I was sitting in the school-house, heeling my left boot, on which I have always been a little hard.
I made small speed, not through lack of craft, but because one can no more drive in tackets properly than take cities unless he gives his whole mind to it; and half of mine was at the Auld Licht manse. Since our meeting six months earlier on the hill I had not seen Gavin, but I had heard much of him, and of a kind to trouble me.
“I saw nothing queer about Mr. Dishart,” was Waster Lunny’s frequent story, “till I hearkened to Elspeth speaking about it to the lasses (for I’m the last Elspeth would tell onything to, though I’m her man), and syne I minded I had been noticing it for months. Elspeth says,” he would go on, for he could no more forbear quoting his wife than complaining of her, “that the minister’ll listen to you nowadays wi’ his een glaring at you as if he had a perfectly passionate interest in what you were telling him (though it may be only about a hen wi’ the croup), and then, after all, he hasna heard a sylib. Ay, I listened to Elspeth saying that, when she thocht I was at the byre, and yet, would you believe it, when I says to her after lousing time, ‘I’ve been noticing of late that the minister loses what a body tells him,’ all she answers is ‘Havers.’ Tod, but women’s provoking.”
“I allow,” Birse said, “that on the first Sabbath o’ June month, and again on the third Sabbath, he poured out the Word grandly, but I’ve ta’en note this curran Sabbaths that if he’s no michty magnificent he’s michty poor. There’s something damming up his mind, and when he gets by it he’s a roaring water, but when he doesna he’s a despizable trickle. The folk thinks it’s a woman that’s getting in his way, but dinna tell me that about sic a scholar; I tell you he would gang ower a toon o’ women like a loaded cart ower new-laid stanes.”
Wearyworld hobbled after me up the Roods one day, pelting me with remarks, though I was doing my best to get away from him. “Even Rob Dow sees there’s something come ower the minister,” he bawled, “for Rob’s fou ilka Sabbath now. Ay, but this I will say for Mr. Dishart, that he aye gies me a civil word,” I thought I had left the policeman behind with this, but next minute he roared, “And whatever is the matter wi’ him it has made him kindlier to me than ever.” He must have taken the short cut through Lunan’s close, for at the top of the Roods his voice again made up on me. “Dagone you, for a cruel pack to put your fingers to your lugs ilka time I open my mouth.”
As for Waster Lunny’s daughter Easie, who got her schooling free for redding up the school-house and breaking my furniture, she would never have been off the gossip about the minister, for she was her mother in miniature, with a tongue that ran like a pump after the pans are full, not for use but for the mere pleasure of spilling.
On that awful fourth of August I not only had all this confused talk in my head but reason for jumping my mind between it and the Egyptian (as if to catch them together unawares), and I was like one who, with the mechanism of a watch jumbled in his hand, could set it going if he had the art.
Of the gypsy I knew nothing save what I had seen that night, yet what more was there to learn? I was aware that she loved Gavin and that he loved her. A moment had shown it to me. Now with the Auld Lichts, I have the smith’s acquaintance with his irons, and so I could not believe that they would suffer their minister to marry a vagrant. Had it not been for this knowledge, which made me fearful for Margaret, I would have done nothing to keep these two young people apart. Some to whom I have said this maintain that the Egyptian turned my head at our first meeting. Such an argument is not perhaps worth controverting. I admit that even now I straighten under the fire of a bright eye, as a pensioner may salute when he sees a young officer. In the shooting season, should I chance to be leaning over my dyke while English sportsmen pass (as is usually the case if I have seen them approaching), I remember nought of them save that they call me “she,” and end their greetings with “whatever” (which Waster Lunny takes to be a southron mode of speech), but their ladies dwell pleasantly in my memory, from their engaging faces to the pretty crumpled thing dangling on their arms, that is a hat or a basket, I am seldom sure which. The Egyptian’s beauty, therefore, was a gladsome sight to me, and none the less so that I had come upon it as unexpectedly as some men step into a bog. Had she been alone when I met her I cannot deny that I would have been content to look on her face, without caring what was inside it; but she was with her lover, and that lover was Gavin, and so her face was to me as little for admiring as this glen in a thunderstorm, when I know that some fellow-creature is lost on the hills.
If, however, it was no quick liking for the gypsy that almost tempted me to leave these two lovers to each other, what was it? It was the warning of my own life. Adam Dishart had torn my arm from Margaret’s, and I had not recovered the wrench in eighteen years. Rather than act his part between these two I felt tempted to tell them, “Deplorable as the result may be, if you who are a minister marry this vagabond, it will be still more deplorable if you do not.”
But there was Margaret to consider, and at thought of her I cursed the Egyptian aloud. What could I do to keep Gavin and the woman apart? I could tell him the secret of his mother’s life. Would that be sufficient? It would if he loved Margaret, as I did not doubt. Pity for her would make him undergo any torture rather than she should suffer again. But to divulge our old connection would entail her discovery of me, and I questioned if even the saving of Gavin could destroy the bitterness of that.
I might appeal to the Egyptian. I might tell her even what I shuddered to tell him. She cared for him, I was sure, well enough to have the courage to give him up. But where was I to find her?
Were she and Gavin meeting still? Perhaps the change which had come over the little minister meant that they had parted. Yet what I had heard him say to her on the hill warned me not to trust in any such solution of the trouble.
Boys play at casting a humming-top into the midst of others on the ground, and if well aimed it scatters them prettily. I seemed to be playing such a game with my thoughts, for each new one sent the others here and there, and so what could I do in the end but fling my tops aside, and return to the heeling of my boot?
I was thus engaged when the sudden waking of the glen into life took me to my window. There is seldom silence up here, for if the wind be not sweeping the heather, the Quharity, that I may not have heard for days, seems to have crept nearer to the school-house in the night, and if both wind and water be out of earshot, there is the crack of a gun, or Waster Lunny’s shepherd is on a stone near at hand whistling, or a lamb is scrambling through a fence, and kicking foolishly with its hind legs. These sounds I am unaware of until they stop, when I look up. Such a stillness was broken now by music.
From my window I saw a string of people walking rapidly down the glen, and Waster Lunny crossing his potato-field to meet them. Remembering that, though I was in my stocking soles, the ground was dry, I hastened to join the farmer, for I like to miss nothing. I saw a curious sight. In front of the little procession coming down the glen road, and so much more impressive than his satellites that they may be put of mind as merely ploughman and the like following a show, was a Highlander that I knew to be Lauchlan Campbell, one of the pipers engaged to lend music to the earl’s marriage. He had the name of a thrawn man when sober, but pretty at the pipes at both times, and he came marching down the glen blowing gloriously, as if he had the clan of Campbell at his heels. I know no man who is so capable on occasion of looking like twenty as a Highland piper, and never have I seen a face in such a blaze of passion as was Lauchlan Campbell’s that day. His following were keeping out of his reach, jumping back every time he turned round to shake his fist in the direction of the Spittal. While this magnificent man was yet some yards from us, I saw Waster Lunny, who had been in the middle of the road to ask questions, fall back in fear, and not being a fighting man myself, I jumped the dyke. Lauchlan gave me a look that sent me farther into the field, and strutted past, shrieking defiance through his pipes, until I lost him and his followers in a bend of the road.
“That’s a terrifying spectacle,” I heard Waster Lunny say when the music had become but a distant squeal. “You’re bonny at louping dykes, dominie, when there is a wild bull in front o’ you. Na, I canna tell what has happened, but at the least Lauchlan maun hae dirked the earl. Thae loons cried out to me as they gaed by that he has been blawing awa’ at that tune till he canna halt. What a wind’s in the crittur! I’m thinking there’s a hell in ilka Highlandman.”
“Take care then, Waster Lunny, that you dinna licht it,” said an angry voice that made us jump, though it was only Duncan, the farmer’s shepherd, who spoke.
“I had forgotten you was a Highlandman yoursel’, Duncan,” Waster Lunny said nervously; but Elspeth, who had come to us unnoticed, ordered the shepherd to return to the hillside, which he did haughtily.
“How did you no lay haud on that blast o’ wind, Lauchlan Campbell,” asked Elspeth of her husband, “and speir at him what had happened at the Spittal? A quarrel afore a marriage brings ill luck.”
“I’m thinking,” said the farmer, “that Rintoul’s making his ain ill luck by marrying on a young leddy.”
“A man’s never ower auld to marry,” said Elspeth.
“No, nor a woman,” rejoined Waster Lunny, “when she gets the chance. But, Elspeth, I believe I can guess what has fired that fearsome piper. Depend upon it, somebody has been speaking disrespectful about the crittur’s ancestors.”
“His ancestors!” exclaimed Elspeth, scornfully. “I’m thinking mine could hae bocht them at a crown the dozen.”
“Hoots,” said the farmer, “you’re o’ a weaving stock, and dinna understand about ancestors. Take a stick to a Highland laddie, and it’s no him you hurt, but his ancestors. Likewise it’s his ancestors that stanes you for it. When Duncan stalked awa the now, what think you he saw? He saw a farmer’s wife dauring to order about his ancestors; and if that’s the way wi’ a shepherd, what will it be wi’ a piper that has the kilts on him a’ day to mind him o’ his ancestors ilka time he looks down?”
Elspeth retired to discuss the probable disturbance at the Spittal with her family, giving Waster Lunny the opportunity of saying to me impressively --
“Man, man, has it never crossed you that it’s a queer thing the like o’ you and me having no ancestors? Ay, we had them in a manner o’ speaking, no doubt, but they’re as completely lost sicht o’ as a flagon lid that’s fallen ahint the dresser. Hech, sirs, but they would need a gey rubbing to get the rust off them now. I’ve been thinking that if I was to get my laddies to say their grandfather’s name a curran times ilka day, like the Catechism, and they were to do the same wi’ their bairns, and it was continued in future generations, we micht raise a fell field o’ ancestors in time. Ay, but Elspeth wouldna hear o’t. Nothing angers her mair than to hear me speak o’ planting trees for the benefit o’ them that’s to be farmers here after me; and as for ancestors, she would howk them up as quick as I could plant them. Losh, dominie, is that a boot in your hand?”
To my mortification I saw that I had run out of the school-house with the boot on my hand as if it were a glove, and back I went straightway, blaming myself for a man wanting in dignity. It was but a minor trouble this, however, even at the time; and to recall it later in the day was to look back on happiness, for though I did not know it yet, Lauchlan’s playing raised the curtain on the great act of Gavin’s life, and the twenty-four hours had begun, to which all I have told as yet is no more than the prologue.
THE NEW WORLD, AND THE WOMAN WHO MAY NOT DWELL THEREIN.
Up here in the glen school-house after my pupils have straggled home, there comes to me at times, and so sudden that it may be while I am infusing my tea, a hot desire to write great books. Perhaps an hour afterwards I rise, beaten, from my desk, flinging all I have written into the fire (yet rescuing some of it on second thought), and curse myself as an ingle-nook man, for I see that one can only paint what he himself has felt, and in my passion I wish to have all the vices, even to being an impious man, that I may describe them better. For this may I be pardoned. It comes to nothing in the end, save that my tea is brackish.
Yet though my solitary life in the glen is cheating me of many experiences, more helpful to a writer than to a Christian, it has not been so tame but that I can understand why Babbie cried when she went into Nanny’s garden and saw the new world. Let no one who loves be called altogether unhappy. Even love unreturned has its rainbow, and Babbie knew that Gavin loved her. Yet she stood in woe among the stiff berry bushes, as one who stretches forth her hands to Love and sees him looking for her, and knows she must shrink from the arms she would lie in, and only call to him in a voice he cannot hear. This is not a love that is always bitter. It grows sweet with age. But could that dry the tears of the little Egyptian, who had only been a woman for a day?
Much was still dark to her. Of one obstacle that must keep her and Gavin ever apart she knew, and he did not; but had it been removed she would have given herself to him humbly, not in her own longing, but because he wanted her. “Behold what I am,” she could have said to him then, and left the rest to him, believing that her unworthiness would not drag him down, it would lose itself so readily in his strength. That Thrums could rise against such a man if he defied it, she did not believe; but she was to learn the truth presently from a child.
To most of us, I suppose, has come some shock that was to make us different men from that hour, and yet, how many days elapsed before something of the man we had been leapt up in us? Babbie thought she had buried her old impulsiveness, and then remembering that from the top of the field she might see Gavin returning from church, she hastened to the hill to look upon him from a distance. Before she reached the gate where I had met her and him, however, she stopped, distressed at her selfishness, and asked bitterly, “Why am I so different from other women; why should what is so easy to them be so hard to me?”
“Gavin, my beloved!” the Egyptian cried in her agony, and the wind caught her words and flung them in the air, making sport of her.
She wandered westward over the bleak hill, and by-and-by came to a great slab called the Standing Stone, on which children often sit and muse until they see gay ladies riding by on palfreys — a kind of horse — and knights in glittering armour, and goblins, and fiery dragons, and other wonders now extinct, of which bare-legged laddies dream, as well as boys in socks. The Standing Stone is in the dyke that separates the hill from a fir wood, and it is the fairy-book of Thrums. If you would be a knight yourself, you must sit on it and whisper to it your desire.
Babbie came to the Standing Stone, and there was a little boy astride it. His hair stood up through holes in his bonnet, and he was very ragged and miserable.
“Why are you crying, little boy?” Babbie asked him, gently; but he did not look up, and the tongue was strange to him.
“How are you greeting so sair?” she asked.
“I’m no greeting very sair,” he answered, turning his head from her that a woman might not see his tears. “I’m no greeting so sair but what I grat sairer when my mither died.”
“When did she die?” Babbie inquired.
“Lang syne,” he answered, still with averted face.
“What is your name?”
“Micah is my name. Rob Dow’s my father.”
“And have you no brothers nor sisters?” asked Babbie, with a fellow-feeling for him.
“No, juist my father,” he said.
“You should be the better laddie to him then. Did your mither no tell you to be that afore she died?”
“Ay,” he answered, “she telled me ay to hide the bottle frae him when I could get haed o’t. She took me into the bed to make me promise that, and syne she died.”
“Does your father drina?”
“He hauds mair than ony other man in Thrums,” Micah replied, almost proudly.
“And he strikes you?” Babbie asked, compassionately.
“That’s a lie,” retorted the boy, fiercely. “Leastwise, he doesna strike me except when he’s mortal, and syne I can jouk him.”
“What are you doing there?”
“I’m wishing. It’s a wishing stane.”
“You are wishing your father wouldna drink.”
“No, I’m no,” answered Micah. “There was a lang time he didna drink, but the woman has sent him to it again. It’s about her I’m wishing. I’m wishing she was in hell.”
“What woman is it?” asked Babbie, shuddering.
“I dinna ken,” Micah said, “but she’s an ill ane.”
“Did you never see her at your father’s house?”
“Na; if he could get grip o’ her he would break her ower his knee. I hearken to him saying that, when he’s wild. He says she should be burned for a witch.”
“But if he hates her,” asked Babbie, “how can she have sic power ower him?”
“It’s no him that she has haud o’,” replied Micah, still looking away from her.
“Wha is it then?”
“It’s Mr. Dishart.”
Babbie was struck as if by an arrow from the wood. It was so unexpected that she gave a cry, and then for the first time Micah looked at her.
“How should that send your father to the drink?” she asked, with an effort.
“Because my father’s michty fond o’ him,” answered Micah, staring strangely at her; “and when the folk ken about the woman, they’ll stane the minister out o’ Thrums.”
The wood faded for a moment from the Egyptian’s sight. When it came back, the boy had slid off the Standing Stone and was stealing away.
“Why do you run frae me?” Babbie asked, pathetically.
“I’m fleid at you,” he gasped, coming to a standstill at a safe distance: “you’re the woman!”
Babbie cowered before her little judge, and he drew nearer her slowly.
“What makes you think that?” she said.
It was a curious time for Babbie’s beauty to be paid its most princely compliment.
“Because you’re so bonny,” Micah whispered across the dyke. Her tears gave him courage. “You micht gang awa,” he entreated. “If you kent what a differ Mr. Dishart made in my father till you came, you would maybe gang awa. When he’s roaring fou I have to sleep in the wood, and it’s awfu’ cauld. I’m doubting he’ll kill me, woman, if you dinna gang awa.”
Poor Babbie put her hand to her heart, but the innocent lad continued mercilessly --
“If ony shame comes to the minister, his auld mither’ll die. How have you sic an ill will at the minister?”
Babbie held up her hands like a supplicant.
“I’ll gie you my rabbit,” Micah said, “if you’ll gang awa. I’ve juist the ane.” She shook her head, and, misunderstanding her, he cried, with his knuckles in his eye, “I’ll gie you them baith, though I’m michty sweer to part wi’ Spotty.”
Then at last Babbie found her voice.
“Keep your rabbits, laddie,” she said, “and greet no more. I’m gaen awa.”
“And you’ll never come back no more a’ your life?” pleaded Micah.
“Never no more a’ my life,” repeated Babbie.
“And ye’ll leave the minister alane for ever and ever?”
“For ever and ever.”
Micah rubbed his face dry, and said, “Will you let me stand on the Standing Stane and watch you gaen awa for ever and ever?”
At that a sob broke from Babbie’s heart, and looking at her doubtfully Micah said --
“Maybe you’re gey ill for what you’ve done?”
“Ay,” Babbie answered, “I’m gey ill for what I’ve done.”
A minute passed, and in her anguish she did not know that still she was standing at the dyke. Micah’s voice roused her:
“You said you would gang awa, and you’re no gaen.”
Then Babbie went away. The boy watched her across the hill. He climbed the Standing Stone and gazed after her until she was but a coloured ribbon among the broom. When she disappeared into Windyghoul he ran home joyfully, and told his father what a good day’s work he had done. Rob struck him for a fool for taking a gypsy’s word, and warned him against speaking of the woman in Thrums.
But though Dow believed that Gavin continued to meet the Egyptian secretly, he was wrong. A sum of money for Nanny was sent to the minister, but he could guess only from whom it came. In vain did he search for Babbie. Some months passed and he gave up the search, persuaded that he should see her no more. He went about his duties with a drawn face that made many folk uneasy when it was stern, and pained them when it tried to smile. But to Margaret, though the effort was terrible, he was as he had ever been, and so no thought of a woman crossed her loving breast.
CONTAINS A BIRTH, WHICH IS SUFFICIENT FOR ONE CHAPTER.
“The kirk bell will soon be ringing,” Nanny said on the following morning, as she placed herself carefully on a stool, one hand holding her Bible and the other wandering complacently over her aged merino gown. “Ay, lassie, though you’re only an Egyptian I would hae ta’en you wi’ me to hear Mr. Duthie, but it’s speiring ower muckle o’ a woman to expect her to gang to the kirk in her ilka day claethes.”
The Babbie of yesterday would have laughed at this, but the new Babbie sighed.
“I wonder you don’t go to Mr. Dishart’s church now, Nanny,” she said, gently. “I am sure you prefer him.”
“Babbie, Babbie,” exclaimed Nanny, with spirit, “may I never be so far left to mysel’ as to change my kirk just because I like another minister better! It’s easy seen, lassie, that you ken little o’ religious questions.”
“Very little,” Babbie admitted, sadly.
“But dinna be so waeful about it,” the old woman continued, kindly, “for that’s no nane like you. Ay, and if you see muckle mair o’ Mr. Dishart he’ll soon cure your ignorance.”
“I shall not see much more of him,” Babbie answered, with averted head.
“The like o’ you couldna expect it,” Nanny said, simply, whereupon Babbie went to the window. “I had better be stepping,” Nanny said, rising, “for I am aye late unless I’m on the hill by the time the bell begins. Ay, Babbie, I’m doubting my merino’s no sair in the fashion?”
She looked down at her dress half despondently, and yet with some pride.
“It was fowerpence the yard, and no less,” she went on, fondling the worn merino, “when we bocht it at Sam’l Curr’s. Ay, but it has been turned sax times since syne.”
She sighed, and Babbie came to her and put her arms round her, saying, “Nanny, you are a dear.”
“I’m a gey auld-farrant-looking dear, I doubt,” said Nanny, ruefully.
“Now, Nanny,” rejoined Babbie, “you are just wanting me to flatter you. You know the merino looks very nice.”
“It’s a guid merino yet,” admitted the old woman, “but, oh, Babbie, what does the material matter if the cut isna fashionable? It’s fine, isn’t it, to be in the fashion?”
She spoke so wistfully that, instead of smiling, Babbie kissed her.
“I am afraid to lay hand on the merino, Nanny, but give me off your bonnet and I’ll make it ten years younger in as many minutes.”
“Could you?” asked Nanny, eagerly, unloosening her bonnet-strings. “Mercy on me!” she had to add; “to think about altering bonnets on the Sabbath-day! Lassie, how could you propose sic a thing?”
“Forgive me, Nanny,” Babbie replied, so meekly that the old woman looked at her curiously.
“I dinna understand what has come ower you,” she said. “There’s an unca difference in you since last nicht. I used to think you were mair like a bird than a lassie, but you’ve lost a’ your daft capers o’ singing and lauching, and I take ill wi’t. Twa or three times I’ve catched you greeting. Babbie, what has come ower you?”
“Nothing, Nanny. I think I hear the bell.”
Down in Thrums two kirk-officers had let their bells loose, waking echoes in Windyghoul as one dog in country parts sets all the others barking, but Nanny did not hurry off to church. Such a surprising notion had filled her head suddenly that she even forgot to hold her dress off the floor.
“Babbie,” she cried, in consternation, “dinna tell me you’ve gotten ower fond o’ Mr. Dishart.”
“The like of me, Nanny!” the gypsy answered, with affected raillery, but there was a tear in her eye.
“It would be a wild, presumptious thing,” Nanny said, “and him a grand minister, but — —”
Babbie tried to look her in the face, but failed, and then all at once there came back to Nanny the days when she and her lover wandered the hill together.
“Ah, my dawtie,” she cried, so tenderly, “what does it matter wha he is when you canna help it!”
Two frail arms went round the Egyptian, and Babbie rested her head on the old woman’s breast. But do you think it could have happened had not Nanny loved a weaver two-score years before?
And now Nanny has set off for church and Babbie is alone in the mud house. Some will pity her not at all, this girl who was a dozen women in the hour, and all made of impulses that would scarce stand still to be photographed. To attempt to picture her at any time until now would have been like chasing a spirit that changes to something else as your arms clasp it; yet she has always seemed a pathetic little figure to me. If I understand Babbie at all, it is, I think, because I loved Margaret, the only woman I have ever known well, and one whose nature was not, like the Egyptian’s, complex, but most simple, as if God had told her only to be good. Throughout my life since she came into it she has been to me a glass in which many things are revealed that I could not have learned save through her, and something of all womankind, even of bewildering Babbie, I seem to know because I knew Margaret.
No woman is so bad but we may rejoice when her heart thrills to love, for then God has her by the hand. There is no love but this. She may dream of what love is, but it is only of a sudden that she knows. Babbie, who was without a guide from her baby days, had dreamed but little of it, hearing its name given to another thing. She had been born wild and known no home; no one had touched her heart except to strike it, she had been educated, but never tamed; her life had been thrown strangely among those who were great in the world’s possessions, but she was not of them. Her soul was in such darkness that she had never seen it; she would have danced away cynically from the belief that there is such a thing, and now all at once she had passed from disbelief to knowledge. Is not love God’s doing? To Gavin He had given something of Himself, and the moment she saw it the flash lit her own soul.
It was but little of his Master that was in Gavin, but far smaller things have changed the current of human lives; the spider’s thread that strikes our brow on a country road may do that. Yet this I will say, though I have no wish to cast the little minister on my pages larger than he was, that he had some heroic hours in Thrums, of which one was when Babbie learned to love him. Until the moment when he kissed her she had only conceived him a quaint fellow whose life was a string of Sundays, but behold what she saw in him now. Evidently to his noble mind her mystery was only some misfortune, not of her making, and his was to be the part of leading her away from it into the happiness of the open life. He did not doubt her, for he loved, and to doubt is to dip love in the mire. She had been given to him by God, and he was so rich in her possession that the responsibility attached to the gift was not grievous. She was his, and no mortal man could part them. Those who looked askance at her were looking askance at him; in so far as she was wayward and wild, he was those things; so long as she remained strange to religion, the blame lay on him.
All this Babbie read in the Gavin of the past night, and to her it was the book of love. What things she had known, said and done in that holy name! How shamefully have we all besmirched it! She had only known it as the most selfish of the passions, a brittle image that men consulted because it could only answer in the words they gave it to say. But here was a man to whom love was something better than his own desires leering on a pedestal. Such love as Babbie had seen hitherto made strong men weak, but this was a love that made a weak man strong. All her life, strength had been her idol, and the weakness that bent to her cajolery her scorn. But only now was it revealed to her that strength, instead of being the lusty child of passions, grows by grappling with and throwing them.
So Babbie loved the little minister for the best that she had ever seen in man. I shall be told that she thought far more of him than he deserved, forgetting the mean in the worthy: but who that has had a glimpse of heaven will care to let his mind dwell henceforth on earth? Love, it is said, is blind, but love is not blind. It is an extra eye, which shows us what is most worthy of regard. To see the best is to see most clearly, and it is the lover’s privilege.
Down in the Auld Licht kirk that forenoon Gavin preached a sermon in praise of Woman, and up in the mudhouse in Windyghoul Babbie sat alone. But it was the Sabbath day to her: the first Sabbath in her life. Her discovery had frozen her mind for a time, so that she could only stare at it with eyes that would not shut; but that had been in the night. Already her love seemed a thing of years, for it was as old as herself, as old as the new Babbie. It was such a dear delight that she clasped it to her, and exulted over it because it was hers, and then she cried over it because she must give it up.
For Babbie must only look at this love and then turn from it. My heart aches for the little Egyptian, but the Promised Land would have remained invisible to her had she not realized that it was only for others. That was the condition of her seeing.
the little minister
First published serially in Good Words 1891