chapter thirty one
VARIOUS BODIES CONVERGING ON THE HILL.
It would be coming on for a quarter-past nine, and a misty night, when I reached the school-house, and I was so weary of mind and body that I sat down without taking off my bonnet. I had left the door open, and I remember listlessly watching the wind making a target of my candle, but never taking a sufficiently big breath to do more than frighten it. From this lethargy I was roused by the sound of wheels.
In the daytime our glen road leads to many parts, but in the night only to the doctor’s. Then the gallop of a horse makes farmers start up in bed and cry, “Who’s ill?” I went to my door and listened to the trap coming swiftly down the lonely glen, but I could not see it, for there was a trailing scarf of mist between the school-house and the road. Presently I heard the swish of the wheels in water, and so learned that they were crossing the ford to come to me. I had been unstrung by the events of the evening, and fear at once pressed thick upon me that this might be a sequel to them, as indeed it was.
While still out of sight the trap stopped, and I heard some one jump from it. Then came this conversation, as distinct as though it had been spoken into my ear:
“Can you see the school-house now, McKenzie?”
“I am groping for it, Rintoul. The mist seems to have made off with the path.”
“Where are you, McKenzie? I have lost sight of you.”
It was but a ribbon of mist, and as these words were spoken McKenzie broke through it. I saw him, though to him I was only a stone at my door.
“I have found the house, Rintoul,” he shouted, “and there is a light in it, so that the fellow has doubtless returned.”
“Then wait a moment for me.”
“Stay where you are, Rintoul, I entreat you, and leave him to me. He may recognize you.”
“No, no, McKenzie, I am sure he never saw me before. I insist on accompanying you.”
“Your excitement, Rintoul, will betray you. Let me go alone. I can question him without rousing his suspicions. Remember, she is only a gypsy to him.”
“He will learn nothing from me. I am quite calm now.”
“Rintoul, I warn you your manner will betray you, and to-morrow it will be roared through the countryside that your bride ran away from the Spittal in a gypsy dress, and had to be brought back by force.”
The altercation may have lasted another minute, but the suddenness with which I learned Babbie’s secret had left my ears incapable of learning more. I daresay the two men started when they found me at my door, but they did not remember, as few do remember who have the noisy day to forget it in, how far the voice carries in the night.
They came as suddenly on me as I on them, for though they had given unintentional notice of their approach, I had lost sight of the speakers in their amazing words. Only a moment did young McKenzie’s anxiety to be spokesman give me to regard Lord Rintoul. I saw that he was a thin man and tall, straight in the figure, but his head began to sink into his shoulders and not very steady on them. His teeth had grip of his under-lip, as if this was a method of controlling his agitation, and he was opening and shutting his hands restlessly. He had a dog with him which I was to meet again.
“Well met, Mr. Ogilvy,” said McKenzie, who knew me slightly, having once acted as judge at a cock-fight in the school-house. “We were afraid we should have to rouse you.”
“You will step inside?” I asked awkwardly, and while I spoke I was wondering how long it would be before the earl’s excitement broke out.
“It is not necessary,” McKenzie answered hurriedly. “My friend and I (this is Mr. McClure) have been caught in the mist without a lamp, and we thought you could perhaps favor us with one.”
“Unfortunately I have nothing of the kind,” I said, and the state of mind I was in is shown by my answering seriously.
“Then we must wish you a good-night and manage as best we can,” he said; and then before he could touch, with affected indifference, on the real object of their visit, the alarmed earl said angrily, “McKenzie, no more of this.”
“No more of this delay, do you mean, McClure?” asked McKenzie, and then, turning to me said, “By the way, Mr. Ogilvy, I think this is our second meeting to-night. I met you on the road a few hours ago with your wife. Or was it your daughter?”
“It was neither, Mr. McKenzie,” I answered, with the calmness of one not yet recovered from a shock. “It was a gypsy girl.”
“Where is she now?” cried Rintoul feverishly; but McKenzie, speaking loudly at the same time, tried to drown his interference as one obliterates writing by writing over it.
“A strange companion for a schoolmaster,” he said. “What became of her?”
“I left her near Caddam Wood,” I replied, “but she is probably not there now.”
“Ah, they are strange creatures, these gypsies!” he said, casting a warning look at the earl. “Now I wonder where she had been bound for.”
“There is a gypsy encampment on the hill,” I answered, though I cannot say why.
“She is there!” exclaimed Rintoul, and was done with me.
“I daresay,” McKenzie said indifferently. “However, it is nothing to us. Good-night, sir.”
The earl had started for the trap, but McKenzie’s salute reminded him of a forgotten courtesy, and, despite his agitation, he came back to apologize. I admired him for this. Then my thoughtlessness must needs mar all.
“Good-night, Mr. McKenzie,” I said. “Good-night, Lord Rintoul.”
I had addressed him by his real name. Never a turnip fell from a bumping, laden cart, and the driver more unconscious of it, than I that I had dropped that word. I re-entered the house, but had not reached my chair when McKenzie’s hand fell roughly on me, and I was swung round.
“Mr. Ogilvy,” he said, the more savagely I doubt not because his passions had been chained so long, “you know more than you would have us think. Beware, sir, of recognising that gypsy should you ever see her again in different attire. I advise you to have forgotten this night when you waken to-morrow morning.”
With a menacing gesture he left me, and I sank into a chair, glad to lose sight of the glowering eyes with which he had pinned me to the wall. I did not hear the trap cross the ford and renew its journey. When I looked out next, the night had fallen very dark, and the glen was so deathly in its drowsiness that I thought not even the cry of murder could tear its eyes open.
The earl and McKenzie would be some distance still from the hill when the office-bearers had scoured it in vain for their minister. The gypsies, now dancing round their fires to music that, on ordinary occasions, Lang Tammas would have stopped by using his fists to the glory of God, had seen no minister, they said, and disbelieved in the existence of the mysterious Egyptian.
“Liars they are to trade,” Spens declared to his companions, “but now and again they speak truth, like a standing clock, and I’m beginning to think the minister’s lassie was invented in the square.”
“Not so,” said the precentor, “for we saw her oursel’s a short year syne, and Hendry Munn there allows there’s townsfolk that hae passed her in the glen mair recently.”
“I only allowed,” Hendry said cautiously, “that some sic talk had shot up sudden-like in the town. Them that pretends they saw her says that she joukit quick out o’ sicht.”
“Ay, and there’s another quirk in that,” responded the suspicious precentor.
“I’se uphaud the minister’s sitting in the manse in his slippers by this time,” Hendry said.
“I’m willing,” replied Whamond, “to gang back and speir, or to search Caddam next; but let the matter drop I winna, though I ken you’re a’ awid to be hame now.”
“And naturally,” retorted Tosh, “for the nicht’s coming on as black as pick, and by the time we’re at Caddam we’ll no even see the trees.”
Toward Caddam, nevertheless, they advanced, hearing nothing but a distant wind and the whish of their legs in the broom.
“Whaur’s John Spens?” Hendry said suddenly.
They turned back and found Spens rooted to the ground, as a boy becomes motionless when he thinks he is within arm’s reach of a nest and the bird sitting on the eggs.
“What do you see, man?” Hendry whispered.
“As sure as death,” answered Spens, awe-struck, “I felt a drap o’ rain.”
“It’s no rain we’re here to look for,” said the precentor.
“Peter Tosh,” cried Spens, “it was a drap! Oh, Peter! how are you looking at me so queer, Peter, when you should be thanking the Lord for the promise that’s in that drap?”
“Come away,” Whamond said, impatiently; but Spens answered, “No till I’ve offered up a prayer for the promise that’s in that drap. Peter Tosh, you’ve forgotten to take off your bonnet.”
“Think twice, John Spens,” gasped Tosh, “afore you pray for rain this nicht.”
The others thought him crazy, but he went on, with a catch in his voice:
“I felt a drap o’ rain mysel’, just afore it came on dark so hurried, and my first impulse was to wish that I could carry that drap about wi’ me and look at it. But, John Spens, when I looked up I saw sic a change running ower the sky that I thocht hell had taen the place o’ heaven, and that there was waterspouts gathering therein for the drowning o’ the world.”
“There’s no water in hell,” the precentor said grimly.
“Genesis ix.,” said Spens, “verses 8 to 17. Ay, but, Peter, you’ve startled me, and I’m thinking we should be stepping hame. Is that a licht?”
“It’ll be in Nanny Webster’s,” Hendry said, after they had all regarded the light.
“I never heard that Nanny needed a candle to licht her to her bed,” the precentor muttered.
“She was awa to meet Sanders the day as he came out o’ the Tilliedrum gaol,” Spens remembered, “and I daresay the licht means they’re hame again.”
“It’s well kent—” began Hendry, and would have recalled his words.
“Hendry Munn,” cried the precentor, “if you hae minded onything that may help us, out wi’t.”
“I was just minding,” the kirk officer answered reluctantly, “that Nanny allows it’s Mr. Dishart that has been keeping her frae the poorhouse. You canna censure him for that, Tammas.”
“Can I no?” retorted Whamond. “What business has he to befriend a woman that belongs to another denomination? I’ll see to the bottom o’ that this nicht. Lads, follow me to Nanny’s, and dinna be surprised if we find baith the minister and the Egyptian there.”
They had not advanced many yards when Spens jumped to the side, crying, “Be wary, that’s no the wind; it’s a machine!”
Immediately the doctor’s dogcart was close to them, with Rob Dow for its only occupant. He was driving slowly, or Whamond could not have escaped the horse’s hoofs.
“Is that you, Rob Dow?” said the precentor sourly. “I tell you, you’ll be gaoled for stealing the doctor’s machine.”
“The Hielandman wasna muckle hurt, Rob,” Hendry said, more good-naturedly.
“I ken that,” replied Rob, scowling at the four of them. “What are you doing here on sic a nicht?”
“Do you see anything strange in the nicht, Rob?” Tosh asked apprehensively.
“It’s setting to rain,” Dow replied. “I dinna see it, but I feel it.”
“Ay,” said Tosh, eagerly, “but will it be a saft, cowdie sweet ding-on?”
“Let the heavens open if they will,” interposed Spens recklessly. “I would swap the drought for rain, though it comes down in a sheet as in the year twelve.”
“And like a sheet it’ll come,” replied Dow, “and the deil’ll blaw it about wi’ his biggest bellowses.”
Tosh shivered, but Whamond shook him roughly, saying --
“Keep your oaths to yoursel’, Rob Dow, and tell me, hae you seen Mr. Dishart?”
“I hinna,” Rob answered curtly, preparing to drive on.
“Nor the lassie they call the Egyptian?”
Rob leaped from the dogcart, crying, “What does that mean?”
“Hands off,” said the precentor, retreating from him. “It means that Mr. Dishart neglected the prayer-meeting this nicht to philander after that heathen woman.”
“We’re no sure o’t, Tammas,” remonstrated the kirk officer. Dow stood quite still. “I believe Rob kens it’s true,” Hendry added sadly, “or he would hae flown at your throat, Tammas Whamond, for saying these words.”
Even this did not rouse Dow.
“Rob doesna worship the minister as he used to do,” said Spens.
“And what for no?” cried the precentor. “Rob Dow, is it because you’ve found out about this woman?”
“You’re a pack o’ liars,” roared Rob, desperately, “and if you say again that ony wandering hussy has haud o’ the minister, I’ll let you see whether I can loup at throats.”
“You’ll swear by the Book,” asked Whamond, relentlessly, “that you’ve seen neither o’ them this nicht, nor them thegither at any time?”
“I so swear by the Book,” answered poor loyal Rob. “But what makes you look for Mr. Dishart here?” he demanded, with an uneasy look at the light in the mudhouse.
“Go hame,” replied the precentor, “and deliver up the machine you stole, and leave this Session to do its duty. John, we maun fathom the meaning o’ that licht.”
Dow started, and was probably at that moment within an ace of felling Whamond.
“I’ll come wi’ you,” he said, hunting in his mind for a better way of helping Gavin.
They were at Nanny’s garden, but in the darkness Whamond could not find the gate. Rob climbed the paling, and was at once lost sight of. Then they saw his head obscure the window. They did not, however, hear the groan that startled Babbie.
“There’s nobody there,” he said, coming back, “but Nanny and Sanders. You’ll mind Sanders was to be freed the day.”
“I’ll go in and see Sanders,” said Hendry, but the precentor pulled him back, saying, “You’ll do nothing o’ the kind, Hendry Munn; you’ll come awa wi’ me now to the manse.”
“It’s mair than me and Peter’ll do, then,” said Spens, who had been consulting with the other farmer. “We’re gaun as straucht hame as the darkness’ll let us.”
With few more words the Session parted, Spens and Tosh setting off for their farms, and Hendry accompanying the precentor. No one will ever know where Dow went. I can fancy him, however, returning to the wood, and there drawing rein. I can fancy his mind made up to watch the mudhouse until Gavin and the gypsy separated, and then pounce upon her. I daresay his whole plot could be condensed into a sentence, “If she’s got rid o’ this nicht, we may cheat the Session yet.” But this is mere surmise. All I know is that he waited near Nanny’s house, and by and by heard another trap coming up Windyghoul. That was just before the ten o’clock bell began to ring.
THE MEETING FOR RAIN.
Meanwhile the Auld Lichts were in church, waiting for their minister, and it was a full meeting, because nearly every well in Thrums had been scooped dry by anxious palms. Yet not all were there to ask God’s rain for themselves. Old Charles Yuill was in his pew, after dreaming thrice that he would break up with the drought; and Bell Christison had come, though her man lay dead at home, and she thought it could matter no more to her how things went in the world.
You, who do not love that little congregation, would have said that they were waiting placidly. But probably so simple a woman as Meggy Rattray could have deceived you into believing that because her eyes were downcast she did not notice who put the three-penny-bit in the plate. A few men were unaware that the bell was working overtime, most of them farmers with their eyes on the windows, but all the women at least were wondering. They knew better, however, than to bring their thoughts to their faces, and none sought to catch another’s eye. The men-folk looked heavily at their hats in the seats in front. Even when Hendry Munn, instead of marching to the pulpit with the big Bible in his hands, came as far as the plate and signed to Peter Tosh, elder, that he was wanted in the vestry, you could not have guessed how every woman there, except Bell Christison, wished she was Peter Tosh. Peter was so taken aback that he merely gaped at Hendry, until suddenly he knew that his five daughters were furious with him, when he dived for his hat and staggered to the vestry with his mouth open. His boots cheeped all the way, but no one looked up.
“I hadna noticed the minister was lang in coming,” Waster Lunny told me afterward, “but Elspeth noticed it, and with a quickness that baffles me she saw I was thinking o’ other things. So she let out her foot at me. I gae a low cough to let her ken I wasna sleeping, but in a minute out goes her foot again. Ay, syne I thocht I micht hae dropped my hanky into Snecky Hobart’s pew, but no, it was in my tails. Yet her hand was on the board, and she was working her fingers in a way that I kent meant she would like to shake me. Next I looked to see if I was sitting on her frock, the which tries a woman sair, but I wasna. ‘Does she want to change Bibles wi’ me?’ I wondered; ‘or is she sliding yont a peppermint to me?’ It was neither, so I edged as far frae her as I could gang. Weel, would you credit it, I saw her body coming nearer me inch by inch, though she was looking straucht afore her, till she was within kick o’ me, and then out again goes her foot. At that, dominie, I lost patience, and I whispered, fierce-like, ‘Keep your foot to yoursel’, you limmer!’ Ay, her intent, you see, was to waken me to what was gaen on, but I couldna be expected to ken that.”
In the vestry Hendry Munn was now holding counsel with three elders, of whom the chief was Lang Tammas.
“The laddie I sent to the manse,” Hendry said, “canna be back this five minutes, and the question is how we’re to fill up that time. I’ll ring no langer, for the bell has been in a passion ever since a quarter-past eight. It’s as sweer to clang past the quarter as a horse to gallop by its stable.”
“You could gang to your box and gie out a psalm, Tammas,” suggested John Spens.
“And would a psalm sung wi’ sic an object,” retorted the precentor, “mount higher, think you, than a bairn’s kite? I’ll insult the Almighty to screen no minister.”
“You’re screening him better by standing whaur you are,” said the imperturbable Hendry; “for as lang as you dinna show your face they’ll think it may be you that’s missing instead o’ Mr. Dishart.”
Indeed, Gavin’s appearance in church without the precentor would have been as surprising as Tammas’s without the minister. As certainly as the shutting of a money-box is followed by the turning of the key, did the precentor walk stiffly from the vestry to his box a toll of the bell in front of the minister. Tammas’s halfpenny rang in the plate as Gavin passed T’nowhead’s pew, and Gavin’s sixpence with the snapping-to of the precentor’s door. The two men might have been connected by a string that tightened at ten yards.
“The congregation ken me ower weel,” Tammas said, “to believe I would keep the Lord waiting.”
“And they are as sure o’ Mr. Dishart,” rejoined Spens, with spirit, though he feared the precentor on Sabbaths and at prayer-meetings. “You’re a hard man.”
“I speak the blunt truth,” Whamond answered.
“Ay,” said Spens, “and to tak’ credit for that may be like blawing that you’re ower honest to wear claethes.”
Hendry, who had gone to the door, returned now with the information that Mr. Dishart had left the manse two hours ago to pay visits, meaning to come to the prayer-meeting before he returned home.
“There’s a quirk in this, Hendry,” said Tosh. “Was it Mistress Dishart the laddie saw?”
“No,” Hendry replied. “It was Jean. She canna get to the meeting because the mistress is nervous in the manse by herself; and Jean didna like to tell her that he’s missing, for fear o’ alarming her. What are we to do now?”
“He’s an unfaithful shepherd,” cried the precentor, while Hendry again went out. “I see it written on the walls.”
“I dinna,” said Spens doggedly.
“Because,” retorted Tammas, “having eyes you see not.”
“Tammas, I aye thocht you was fond o’ Mr. Dishart.”
“If my right eye were to offend me,” answered the precentor, “I would pluck it out. I suppose you think, and baith o’ you farmers too, that there’s no necessity for praying for rain the nicht? You’ll be content, will ye, if Mr. Dishart just drops in to the kirk some day, accidental-like, and offers up a bit prayer?”
“As for the rain,” Spens said, triumphantly, “I wouldna wonder though it’s here afore the minister. You canna deny, Peter Tosh, that there’s been a smell o’ rain in the air this twa hours back.”
“John,” Peter said agitatedly, “dinna speak so confidently. I’ve kent it,” he whispered, “since the day turned; but it wants to tak’ us by surprise, lad, and so I’m no letting on.”
“See that you dinna make an idol o’ the rain,” thundered Whamond. “Your thochts is no wi’ Him, but wi’ the clouds; and whaur your thochts are, there will your prayers stick also.”
“If you saw my lambs,” Tosh began; and then, ashamed of himself, said, looking upward, “He holds the rain in the hollow of His hand.”
“And He’s closing His neive ticht on’t again,” said the precentor solemnly. “Hearken to the wind rising!”
“God help me!” cried Tosh, wringing his hands. “Is it fair, think you,” he said, passionately addressing the sky, “to show your wrath wi’ Mr. Dishart by ruining my neeps?”
“You were richt, Tammas Whamond,” Spens said, growing hard as he listened to the wind, “the sanctuary o’ the Lord has been profaned this nicht by him wha should be the chief pillar o’ the building.”
They were lowering brows that greeted Hendry when he returned to say that Mr. Dishart had been seen last on the hill with the Glen Quharity dominie.
“Some thinks,” said the kirk officer, “that he’s awa hunting for Rob Dow.”
“Nothing’ll excuse him,” replied Spens, “short o’ his having fallen over the quarry.”
Hendry’s was usually a blank face, but it must have looked troubled now, for Tosh was about to say, “Hendry, you’re keeping something back,” when the precentor said it before him.
“Wi’ that story o’ Mr. Dishart’s murder, no many hours auld yet,” the kirk officer replied evasively, “we should be wary o’ trusting gossip.”
“What hae you heard?”
“It’s through the town,” Hendry answered, “that a woman was wi’ the dominie.”
“A woman!” cried Tosh. “The woman there’s been sic talk about in connection wi’ the minister? Whaur are they now?”
“It’s no kent, but — the dominie was seen goin’ hame by himsel’.”
“Leaving the minister and her thegither!” cried the three men at once.
“Hendry Munn,” Tammas said sternly, “there’s mair about this; wha is the woman?”
“They are liars,” Hendry answered, and shut his mouth tight.
“Gie her a name, I say,” the precentor ordered, “or, as chief elder of this kirk, supported by mair than half o’ the Session, I command you to lift your hat and go.”
Hendry gave an appealing look to Tosh and Spens, but the precentor’s solemnity had cowed them.
“They say, then,” he answered sullenly, “that it’s the Egyptian. Yes, and I believe they ken.”
The two farmers drew back from this statement incredulously; but Tammas Whamond jumped at the kirk officer’s throat, and some who were in the church that night say they heard Hendry scream. Then the precentor’s fingers relaxed their grip, and he tottered into the middle of the room.
“Hendry,” he pleaded, holding out his arms pathetically, “tak’ back these words. Oh, man, have pity, and tak’ them back!”
But Hendry would not, and then Lang Tammas’s mouth worked convulsively, and he sobbed, crying, “Nobody kent it, but mair than mortal son, O God, I did love the lad!”
So seldom in a lifetime had any one seen into this man’s heart that Spens said, amazed:
“Tammas, Tammas Whamond, it’s no like you to break down.”
The rusty door of Whamond’s heart swung to.
“Who broke down?” he asked fiercely. “Let no member of this Session dare to break down till his work be done.”
“What work?” Tosh said uneasily. “We canna interfere.”
“I would rather resign,” Spens said, but shook when Whamond hurled these words at him:
“‘And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’”
“It mayna be true,” Hendry said eagerly.
“We’ll soon see.”
“He would gie her up,” said Tosh.
“Peter Tosh,” answered Whamond sternly, “I call upon you to dismiss the congregation.”
“Should we no rather haud the meeting oursel’s?”
“We have other work afore us,” replied the precentor.
“But what can I say?” Tosh asked nervously. “Should I offer up a prayer?”
“I warn you all,” broke in Hendry, “that though the congregation is sitting there quietly, they’ll be tigers for the meaning o’ this as soon as they’re in the street.”
“Let no ontruth be telled them,” said the precentor. “Peter Tosh, do your duty. John Spens, remain wi’ me.”
The church emptied silently, but a buzz of excitement arose outside. Many persons tried to enter the vestry, but were ordered away, and when Tosh joined his fellow-elders the people were collecting in animated groups in the square, or scattering through the wynds for news.
“And now,” said the precentor, “I call upon the three o’ you to come wi’ me. Hendry Munn, you gang first.”
“I maun bide ahint,” Hendry said, with a sudden fear, “to lock up the kirk.”
“I’ll lock up the kirk,” Whamond answered harshly.
“You maun gie me the keys, though,” entreated the kirk officer.
“I’ll take care o’ the keys,” said Whamond.
“I maun hae them,” Hendry said, “to open the kirk on Sabbath.”
The precentor locked the doors, and buttoned up the keys in his trousers pockets.
“Wha kens,” he said, in a voice of steel, “that the kirk’ll be open next Sabbath?”
“Hae some mercy on him, Tammas,” Spens implored. “He’s no twa-and-twenty.”
“Wha kens,” continued the precentor, “but that the next time this kirk is opened will be to preach it toom?”
“What road do we tak’?”
“The road to the hill, whaur he was seen last.”
chapter twenty nine
STORY OF THE EGYPTIAN.
God gives us more than, were we not overbold, we should dare to ask for, and yet how often (perhaps after saying “Thank God” so curtly that it is only a form of swearing) we are suppliants again within the hour. Gavin was to be satisfied if he were told that no evil had befallen her he loved, and all the way between the school-house and Windyghoul Babbie craved for no more than Gavin’s life. Now they had got their desires; but do you think they were content?
The Egyptian had gone on her knees when she heard Gavin speak of her. It was her way of preventing herself from running to him. Then, when she thought him gone, he opened the door. She rose and shrank back, but first she had stepped toward him with a glad cry. His disappointed arms met on nothing.
“You, too, heard that I was dead?” he said, thinking her strangeness but grief too sharply turned to joy.
There were tears in the word with which she answered him, and he would have kissed her, but she defended her face with her hand.
“Babbie,” he asked, beginning to fear that he had not sounded her deepest woe, “why have you left me all this time? You are not glad to see me now?”
“I was glad,” she answered in a low voice, “to see you from the window, but I prayed to God not to let you see me.”
She even pulled away her hand when he would have taken it. “No, no, I am to tell you everything now, and then — —”
“Say that you love me first,” he broke in, when a sob checked her speaking.
“No,” she said, “I must tell you first what I have done, and then you will not ask me to say that. I am not a gypsy.”
“What of that?” cried Gavin. “It was not because you were a gypsy that I loved you.”
“That is the last time you will say you love me,” said Babbie. “Mr. Dishart, I am to be married to-morrow.”
She stopped, afraid to say more lest he should fall, but except that his arms twitched he did not move.
“I am to be married to Lord Rintoul,” she went on. “Now you know who I am.”
She turned from him, for his piercing eyes frightened her. Never again, she knew, would she see the love-light in them. He plucked himself from the spot where he had stood looking at her and walked to the window. When he wheeled round there was no anger on his face, only a pathetic wonder that he had been deceived so easily. It was at himself that he was smiling grimly rather than at her, and the change pained Babbie as no words could have hurt her. He sat down on a chair and waited for her to go on.
“Don’t look at me,” she said, “and I will tell you everything.” He dropped his eyes listlessly, and had he not asked her a question from time to time, she would have doubted whether he heard her.
“After all,” she said, “a gypsy dress is my birth-right, and so the Thrums people were scarcely wrong in calling me an Egyptian. It is a pity any one insisted on making me something different. I believe I could have been a good gypsy.”
“Who were your parents?” Gavin asked, without looking up.
“You ask that,” she said, “because you have a good mother. It is not a question that would occur to me. My mother — If she was bad, may not that be some excuse for me? Ah, but I have no wish to excuse myself. Have you seen a gypsy cart with a sort of hammock swung beneath it in which gypsy children are carried about the country? If there are no children, the pots and pans are stored in it. Unless the roads are rough it makes a comfortable cradle, and it was the only one I ever knew. Well, one day I suppose the road was rough, for I was capsized. I remember picking myself up after a little and running after the cart, but they did not hear my cries. I sat down by the roadside and stared after the cart until I lost sight of it. That was in England, and I was not three years old.”
“But surely,” Gavin said, “they came back to look for you?”
“So far as I know,” Babbie answered hardly, “they did not come back. I have never seen them since. I think they were drunk. My only recollection of my mother is that she once took me to see the dead body of some gypsy who had been murdered. She told me to dip my hand in the blood, so that I could say I had done so when I became a woman. It was meant as a treat to me, and is the one kindness I am sure I got from her. Curiously enough, I felt the shame of her deserting me for many years afterwards. As a child I cried hysterically at thought of it; it pained me when I was at school in Edinburgh every time I saw the other girls writing home; I cannot think of it without a shudder even now. It is what makes me worse than other women.”
Her voice had altered, and she was speaking passionately.
“Sometimes,” she continued, more gently, “I try to think that my mother did come back for me, and then went away because she heard I was in better hands than hers. It was Lord Rintoul who found me, and I owe everything to him. You will say that he has no need to be proud of me. He took me home on his horse, and paid his gardener’s wife to rear me. She was Scotch, and that is why I can speak two languages. It was he, too, who sent me to school in Edinburgh.”
“He has been very kind to you,” said Gavin, who would have preferred to dislike the earl.
“So kind,” answered Babbie, “that now he is to marry me. But do you know why he has done all this?”
Now again she was agitated, and spoke indignantly.
“It is all because I have a pretty face,” she said, her bosom rising and falling. “Men think of nothing else. He had no pity for the deserted child. I knew that while I was yet on his horse. When he came to the gardener’s afterwards, it was not to give me some one to love, it was only to look upon what was called my beauty; I was merely a picture to him, and even the gardener’s children knew it and sought to terrify me by saying, ‘You are losing your looks; the earl will not care for you any more.’ Sometimes he brought his friends to see me, ‘because I was such a lovely child,’ and if they did not agree with him on that point he left without kissing me. Throughout my whole girlhood I was taught nothing but to please him, and the only way to do that was to be pretty. It was the only virtue worth striving for; the others were never thought of when he asked how I was getting on. Once I had fever and nearly died, yet this knowledge that my face was everything was implanted in me so that my fear lest he should think me ugly when I recovered terrified me into hysterics. I dream still that I am in that fever and all my fears return. He did think me ugly when he saw me next. I remember the incident so well still. I had run to him, and he was lifting me up to kiss me when he saw that my face had changed. ‘What a cruel disappointment,’ he said, and turned his back on me. I had given him a child’s love until then, but from that day I was hard and callous.”
“And when was it you became beautiful again?” Gavin asked, by no means in the mind to pay compliments.
“A year passed,” she continued, “before I saw him again. In that time he had not asked for me once, and the gardener had kept me out of charity. It was by an accident that we met, and at first he did not know me. Then he said, ‘Why, Babbie, I believe you are to be a beauty, after all!’ I hated him for that, and stalked away from him, but he called after me, ‘Bravo! she walks like a queen’; and it was because I walked like a queen that he sent me to an Edinburgh school. He used to come to see me every year, and as I grew up the girls called me Lady Rintoul. He was not fond of me; he is not fond of me now. He would as soon think of looking at the back of a picture as at what I am apart from my face, but he dotes on it, and is to marry it. Is that love? Long before I left school, which was shortly before you came to Thrums, he had told his sister that he was determined to marry me, and she hated me for it, making me as uncomfortable as she could, so that I almost looked forward to the marriage because it would be such a humiliation to her.”
In admitting this she looked shamefacedly at Gavin, and then went on:
“It is humiliating him too. I understand him. He would like not to want to marry me, for he is ashamed of my origin, but he cannot help it. It is this feeling that has brought him here, so that the marriage may take place where my history is not known.”
“The secret has been well kept,” Gavin said, “for they have failed to discover it even in Thrums.”
“Some of the Spittal servants suspect it, nevertheless,” Babbie answered, “though how much they know I cannot say. He has not a servant now, either here or in England, who knew me as a child. The gardener who befriended me was sent away long ago. Lord Rintoul looks upon me as a disgrace to him that he cannot live without.”
“I dare say he cares for you more than you think,” Gavin said gravely.
“He is infatuated about my face, or the pose of my head, or something of that sort,” Babbie said bitterly, “or he would not have endured me so long. I have twice had the wedding postponed, chiefly, I believe, to enrage my natural enemy, his sister, who is as much aggravated by my reluctance to marry him as by his desire to marry me. However, I also felt that imprisonment for life was approaching as the day drew near, and I told him that if he did not defer the wedding I should run away. He knows I am capable of it, for twice I ran away from school. If his sister only knew that!”
For a moment it was the old Babbie Gavin saw; but her glee was short-lived, and she resumed sedately:
“They were kind to me at school, but the life was so dull and prim that I ran off in a gypsy dress of my own making. That is what it is to have gypsy blood in one. I was away for a week the first time, wandering the country alone, telling fortunes, dancing and singing in woods, and sleeping in barns. I am the only woman in the world well brought up who is not afraid of mice or rats. That is my gypsy blood again. After that wild week I went back to the school of my own will, and no one knows of the escapade but my schoolmistress and Lord Rintoul. The second time, however, I was detected singing in the street, and then my future husband was asked to take me away. Yet Miss Feversham cried when I left, and told me that I was the nicest girl she knew, as well as the nastiest. She said she should love me as soon as I was not one of her boarders.”
“And then you came to the Spittal?”
“Yes; and Lord Rintoul wanted me to say I was sorry for what I had done, but I told him I need not say that, for I was sure to do it again. As you know, I have done it several times since then; and though I am a different woman since I knew you, I dare say I shall go on doing it at times all my life. You shake your head because you do not understand. It is not that I make up my mind to break out in that way; I may not have had the least desire to do it for weeks, and then suddenly, when I am out riding, or at dinner, or at a dance, the craving to be a gypsy again is so strong that I never think of resisting it; I would risk my life to gratify it. Yes, whatever my life in the future is to be, I know that must be a part of it. I used to pretend at the Spittal that I had gone to bed, and then escape by the window. I was mad with glee at those times, but I always returned before morning, except once, the last time I saw you, when I was away for nearly twenty-four hours. Lord Rintoul was so glad to see me come back then that he almost forgave me for going away. There is nothing more to tell except that on the night of the riot it was not my gypsy nature that brought me to Thrums, but a desire to save the poor weavers. I had heard Lord Rintoul and the sheriff discussing the contemplated raid. I have hidden nothing from you. In time, perhaps, I shall have suffered sufficiently for all my wickedness.”
Gavin rose weariedly, and walked through the mudhouse looking at her.
“This is the end of it all,” he said harshly, coming to a standstill. “I loved you, Babbie.”
“No,” she answered, shaking her head. “You never knew me until now, and so it was not me you loved. I know what you thought I was, and I will try to be it now.”
“If you had only told me this before,” the minister said sadly, “it might not have been too late.”
chapter twenty eight
THE HILL BEFORE DARKNESS FELL — SCENE OF THE IMPENDING CATASTROPHE.
“You are better now?” I heard Gavin ask, presently.
He thought that having been taken ill suddenly I had waved to him for help because he chanced to be near. With all my wits about me I might have left him in that belief, for rather would I have deceived him than had him wonder why his welfare seemed so vital to me. But I, who thought the capacity for being taken aback had gone from me, clung to his arm and thanked God audibly that he still lived. He did not tell me then how my agitation puzzled him, but led me kindly to the hill, where we could talk without listeners. By the time we reached it I was again wary, and I had told him what had brought me to Thrums, without mentioning how the story of his death reached my ears, or through whom.
“Mr. McKenzie,” he said, interrupting me, “galloped all the way from the Spittal on the same errand. However, no one has been hurt much, except the piper himself.”
Then he told me how the rumor arose.
“You know of the incident at the Spittal, and that Campbell marched off in high dudgeon? I understand that he spoke to no one between the Spittal and Thrums, but by the time he arrived here he was more communicative; yes, and thirstier. He was treated to drink in several public-houses by persons who wanted to hear his story, and by-and-by he began to drop hints of knowing something against the earl’s bride. Do you know Rob Dow?”
“Yes,” I answered, “and what you have done for him.”
“Ah, sir!” he said, sighing, “for a long time I thought I was to be God’s instrument in making a better man of Rob, but my power over him went long ago. Ten short months of the ministry takes some of the vanity out of a man.”
Looking sideways at him I was startled by the unnatural brightness of his eyes. Unconsciously he had acquired the habit of pressing his teeth together in the pauses of his talk, shutting them on some woe that would proclaim itself, as men do who keep their misery to themselves.
“A few hours ago,” he went on, “I heard Rob’s voice in altercation as I passed the Bull tavern, and I had a feeling that if I failed with him so should I fail always throughout my ministry. I walked into the public-house, and stopped at the door of a room in which Dow and the piper were sitting drinking. I heard Rob saying, fiercely, ‘If what you say about her is true, Highlandman, she’s the woman I’ve been looking for this half year and mair; what is she like?’ I guessed, from what I had been told of the piper, that they were speaking of the earl’s bride; but Rob saw me and came to an abrupt stop, saying to his companion, ‘Dinna say another word about her afore the minister.’ Rob would have come away at once in answer to my appeal, but the piper was drunk and would not be silenced. ‘I’ll tell the minister about her, too,’ he began. ‘You dinna ken what you’re doing,’ Rob roared, and then, as if to save my ears from scandal at any cost, he struck Campbell a heavy blow on the mouth. I tried to intercept the blow, with the result that I fell, and then some one ran out of the tavern crying, ‘He’s killed!’ The piper had been stunned, but the story went abroad that he had stabbed me for interfering with him. That is really all. Nothing, as you know, can overtake an untruth if it has a minute’s start.”
“Where is Campbell now?”
“Sleeping off the effect of the blow: but Dow has fled. He was terrified at the shouts of murder, and ran off up the West Town end. The doctor’s dogcart was standing at a door there and Rob jumped into it and drove off. They did not chase him far, because he is sure to hear the truth soon, and then, doubtless, he will come back.”
Though in a few hours we were to wonder at our denseness, neither Gavin nor I saw why Dow had struck the Highlander down rather than let him tell his story in the minister’s presence. One moment’s suspicion would have lit our way to the whole truth, but of the spring to all Rob’s behavior in the past eight months we were ignorant, and so to Gavin the Bull had only been the scene of a drunken brawl, while I forgot to think in the joy of finding him alive.
“I have a prayer-meeting for rain presently,” Gavin said, breaking a picture that had just appeared unpleasantly before me of Babbie still in agony at Nanny’s, “but before I leave you tell me why this rumor caused you such distress.”
The question troubled me, and I tried to avoid it. Crossing the hill we had by this time drawn near a hollow called the Toad’s-hole, then gay and noisy with a caravan of gypsies. They were those same wild Lindsays, for whom Gavin had searched Caddam one eventful night, and as I saw them crowding round their king, a man well known to me, I guessed what they were at.
“Mr. Dishart,” I said abruptly, “would you like to see a gypsy marriage? One is taking place there just now. That big fellow is the king, and he is about to marry two of his people over the tongs. The ceremony will not detain us five minutes, though the rejoicings will go on all night.”
I have been present at more than one gypsy wedding in my time, and at the wild, weird orgies that followed them, but what is interesting to such as I may not be for a minister’s eyes, and, frowning at my proposal, Gavin turned his back upon the Toad’s-hole. Then, as we recrossed the hill, to get away from the din of the camp, I pointed out to him that the report of his death had brought McKenzie to Thrums, as well as me.
“As soon as McKenzie heard I was not dead,” he answered, “he galloped off to the Spittal, without even seeing me. I suppose he posted back to be in time for the night’s rejoicings there. So you see, it was not solicitude for me that brought him. He came because a servant at the Spittal was supposed to have done the deed.”
“Well, Mr. Dishart,” I had to say, “why should I deny that I have a warm regard for you? You have done brave work in our town.”
“It has been little,” he replied. “With God’s help it will be more in future.”
He meant that he had given time to his sad love affair that he owed to his people. Of seeing Babbie again I saw that he had given up hope. Instead of repining, he was devoting his whole soul to God’s work. I was proud of him, and yet I grieved, for I could not think that God wanted him to bury his youth so soon.
“I had thought,” he confessed to me, “that you were one of those who did not like my preaching.”
“You were mistaken,” I said, gravely. I dared not tell him that, except his mother, none would have sat under him so eagerly as I.
“Nevertheless,” he said, “you were a member of the Auld Licht church in Mr. Carfrae’s time, and you left it when I came.”
“I heard your first sermon,” I said.
“Ah,” he replied. “I had not been long in Thrums before I discovered that if I took tea with any of my congregation and declined a second cup, they thought it a reflection on their brewing.”
“You must not look upon my absence in that light,” was all I could say. “There are reasons why I cannot come.”
He did not press me further, thinking I meant that the distance was too great, though frailer folk than I walked twenty miles to hear him. We might have parted thus had we not wandered by chance to the very spot where I had met him and Babbie. There is a seat there now for those who lose their breath on the climb up, and so I have two reasons nowadays for not passing the place by.
We read each other’s thoughts, and Gavin said calmly, “I have not seen her since that night. She disappeared as into a grave.”
How could I answer when I knew that Babbie was dying for want of him, not half a mile away?
“You seemed to understand everything that night,” he went on; “or if you did not, your thoughts were very generous to me.”
In my sorrow for him I did not notice that we were moving on again, this time in the direction of Windyghoul.
“She was only a gypsy girl,” he said, abruptly, and I nodded. “But I hoped,” he continued, “that she would be my wife.”
“I understood that,” I said.
“There was nothing monstrous to you,” he asked, looking me in the face, “in a minister’s marrying a gypsy?”
I own that if I had loved a girl, however far below or above me in degree, I would have married her had she been willing to take me. But to Gavin I only answered, “These are matters a man must decide for himself.”
“I had decided for myself,” he said, emphatically.
“Yet,” I said, wanting him to talk to me of Margaret, “in such a case one might have others to consider besides himself.”
“A man’s marriage,” he answered, “is his own affair, I would have brooked no interference from my congregation.”
I thought, “There is some obstinacy left in him still;” but aloud I said, “It was of your mother I was thinking.”
“She would have taken Babbie to her heart,” he said, with the fond conviction of a lover.
I doubted it, but I only asked, “Your mother knows nothing of her?”
“Nothing,” he rejoined. “It would be cruelty to tell my mother of her now that she is gone.”
Gavin’s calmness had left him, and he was striding quickly nearer to Windyghoul. I was in dread lest he should see the Egyptian at Nanny’s door, yet to have turned him in another direction might have roused his suspicions. When we were within a hundred yards of the mudhouse, I knew that there was no Babbie in sight. We halved the distance and then I saw her at the open window. Gavin’s eyes were on the ground, but she saw him. I held my breath, fearing that she would run out to him.
“You have never seen her since that night?” Gavin asked me, without hope in his voice.
Had he been less hopeless he would have wondered why I did not reply immediately. I was looking covertly at the mudhouse, of which we were now within a few yards. Babbie’s face had gone from the window, and the door remained shut. That she could hear every word we uttered now, I could not doubt. But she was hiding from the man for whom her soul longed. She was sacrificing herself for him.
“Never,” I answered, notwithstanding my pity of the brave girl, and then while I was shaking lest he should go in to visit Nanny, I heard the echo of the Auld Licht bell.
“That calls me to the meeting for rain,” Gavin said, bidding me good-night. I had acted for Margaret, and yet I had hardly the effrontery to take his hand. I suppose he saw sympathy in my face, for suddenly the cry broke from him --
“If I could only know that nothing evil had befallen her!”
Babbie heard him and could not restrain a heart-breaking sob.
“What was that?” he said, starting.
A moment I waited, to let her show herself if she chose. But the mudhouse was silent again.
“It was some boy in the wood,” I answered.
“Good-bye,” he said, trying to smile.
Had I let him go, here would have been the end of his love story, but that piteous smile unmanned me, and I could not keep the words back.
“She is in Nanny’s house,” I cried.
In another moment these two were together for weal or woe, and I had set off dizzily for the school-house, feeling now that I had been false to Margaret, and again exulting in what I had done. By and by the bell stopped, and Gavin and Babbie regarded it as little as I heeded the burns now crossing the glen road noisily at places that had been dry two hours before.
chapter twenty seven
FIRST JOURNEY OF THE DOMINIE TO THRUMS DURING THE TWENTY-FOUR HOURS.
“How did it happen?” I asked more than once, but the Egyptian was only with me in the body, and she did not hear. I might have been talking to some one a mile away whom a telescope had drawn near my eyes.
When I put on my bonnet, however, she knew that I was going to Thrums, and she rose and walked to the door, looking behind to see that I followed.
“You must not come,” I said harshly, but her hand started to her heart as if I had shot her, and I added quickly, “Come.” We were already some distance on our way before I repeated my question.
“What matter how it happened?” she answered piteously, and they were words of which I felt the force. But when she said a little later, “I thought you would say it is not true,” I took courage, and forced her to tell me all she knew. She sobbed while she spoke, if one may sob without tears.
“I heard of it at the Spittal,” she said. “The news broke out suddenly there that the piper had quarrelled with some one in Thrums, and that in trying to separate them Mr. Dishart was stabbed. There is no doubt of its truth.”
“We should have heard of it here,” I said hopefully, “before the news reached the Spittal. It cannot be true.”
“It was brought to the Spittal,” she answered, “by the hill road.”
Then my spirits sank again, for I knew that this was possible. There is a path, steep but short, across the hills between Thrums and the top of the glen, which Mr. Glendinning took frequently when he had to preach at both places on the same Sabbath. It is still called the Minister’s Road.
“Yet if the earl had believed it he would have sent some one into Thrums for particulars,” I said, grasping at such comfort as I could make.
“He does believe it,” she answered. “He told me of it himself.”
You see the Egyptian was careless of her secret now; but what was that secret to me? An hour ago it would have been much, and already it was not worth listening to. If she had begun to tell me why Lord Rintoul took a gypsy girl into his confidence I should not have heard her.
“I ran quickly,” she said. “Even if a messenger was sent he might be behind me.”
Was it her words or the tramp of a horse that made us turn our heads at that moment? I know not. But far back in a twist of the road we saw a horseman approaching at such a reckless pace that I thought he was on a runaway. We stopped instinctively, and waited for him, and twice he disappeared in hollows of the road, and then was suddenly tearing down upon us. I recognised in him young Mr. McKenzie, a relative of Rintoul, and I stretched out my arms to compel him to draw up. He misunderstood my motive, and was raising his whip threateningly, when he saw the Egyptian. It is not too much to say that he swayed in the saddle. The horse galloped on, though he had lost hold of the reins. He looked behind until he rounded a corner, and I never saw such amazement mixed with incredulity on a human face. For some minutes I expected to see him coming back, but when he did not I said wonderingly to the Egyptian --
“He knew you.”
“Did he?” she answered indifferently, and I think we spoke no more until we were in Windyghoul. Soon we were barely conscious of each other’s presence. Never since have I walked between the school-house and Thrums in so short a time, nor seen so little on the way.
In the Egyptian’s eyes, I suppose, was a picture of Gavin lying dead; but if her grief had killed her thinking faculties, mine, that was only less keen because I had been struck down once before, had set all the wheels of my brain in action. For it seemed to me that the hour had come when I must disclose myself to Margaret.
I had realised always that if such a necessity did arise it could only be caused by Gavin’s premature death, or by his proving a bad son to her. Some may wonder that I could have looked calmly thus far into the possible, but I reply that the night of Adam Dishart’s homecoming had made of me a man whom the future could not surprise again. Though I saw Gavin and his mother happy in our Auld Licht manse, that did not prevent my considering the contingencies which might leave her without a son. In the school-house I had brooded over them as one may think over moves on a draught-board. It may have been idle, but it was done that I might know how to act best for Margaret if anything untoward occurred. The time for such action had come. Gavin’s death had struck me hard, but it did not crush me. I was not unprepared. I was going to Margaret now.
What did I see as I walked quickly along the glen road, with Babbie silent by my side, and I doubt not pods of the broom cracking all around us? I saw myself entering the Auld Licht manse, where Margaret sat weeping over the body of Gavin, and there was none to break my coming to her, for none but she and I knew what had been.
I saw my Margaret again, so fragile now, so thin the wrists, her hair turned grey. No nearer could I go, but stopped at the door, grieving for her, and at last saying her name aloud.
I saw her raise her face, and look upon me for the first time for eighteen years. She did not scream at sight of me, for the body of her son lay between us, and bridged the gulf that Adam Dishart had made.
I saw myself draw near her reverently and say, “Margaret, he is dead, and that is why I have come back,” and I saw her put her arms around my neck as she often did long ago.
But it was not to be. Never since that night at Harvie have I spoken to Margaret.
The Egyptian and I were to come to Windyghoul before I heard her speak. She was not addressing me. Here Gavin and she had met first, and she was talking of that meeting to herself.
“It was there,” I heard her say softly, as she gazed at the bush beneath which she had seen him shaking his fist at her on the night of the riots. A little farther on she stopped where a path from Windyghoul sets off for the well in the wood. She looked up it wistfully, and there I left her behind, and pressed on to the mudhouse to ask Nanny Webster if the minister was dead. Nanny’s gate was swinging in the wind, but her door was shut, and for a moment I stood at it like a coward, afraid to enter and hear the worst.
The house was empty. I turned from it relieved, as if I had got a respite, and while I stood in the garden the Egyptian came to me shuddering, her twitching face asking the question that would not leave her lips.
“There is no one in the house,” I said. “Nanny is perhaps at the well.”
But the gypsy went inside, and pointing to the fire said, “It has been out for hours. Do you not see? The murder has drawn every one into Thrums.”
So I feared. A dreadful night was to pass before I knew that this was the day of the release of Sanders Webster, and that frail Nanny had walked into Tilliedrum to meet him at the prison gate.
Babbie sank upon a stool, so weak that I doubt whether she heard me tell her to wait there until my return. I hurried into Thrums, not by the hill, though it is the shorter way, but by the Roods, for I must hear all before I ventured to approach the manse. From Windyghoul to the top of the Roods it is a climb and then a steep descent. The road has no sooner reached its highest point than it begins to fall in the straight line of houses called the Roods, and thus I came upon a full view of the street at once. A cart was laboring up it. There were women sitting on stones at their doors, and girls playing at palaulays, and out of the house nearest me came a black figure. My eyes failed me; I was asking so much from them. They made him tall and short, and spare and stout, so that I knew it was Gavin, and yet, looking again, feared, but all the time, I think, I knew it was he.
the little minister
First published serially in Good Words 1891