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.
the little minister
First published serially in Good Words 1891