THE WOMAN CONSIDERED IN ABSENCE — ADVENTURES OF A MILITARY CLOAK.
About six o’clock Margaret sat up suddenly in bed, with the conviction that she had slept in. To her this was to ravel the day: a dire thing. The last time it happened Gavin, softened by her distress, had condensed morning worship into a sentence that she might make up on the clock.
Her part on waking was merely to ring her bell, and so rouse Jean, for Margaret had given Gavin a promise to breakfast in bed, and remain there till her fire was lit. Accustomed all her life, however, to early rising, her feet were usually on the floor before she remembered her vow, and then it was but a step to the window to survey the morning. To Margaret, who seldom went out, the weather was not of great moment, while it mattered much to Gavin, yet she always thought of it the first thing, and he not at all until he had to decide whether his companion should be an umbrella or a staff.
On this morning Margaret only noticed that there had been rain since Gavin came in. Forgetting that the water obscuring the outlook was on the other side of the panes, she tried to brush it away with her fist. It was of the soldiers she was thinking. They might have been awaiting her appearance at the window as their signal to depart, for hardly had she raised the blind when they began their march out of Thrums. From the manse she could not see them, but she heard them, and she saw some people at the Tenements run to their houses at sound of the drum. Other persons, less timid, followed the enemy with execrations halfway to Tilliedrum. Margaret, the only person, as it happened, then awake in the manse, stood listening for some time. In the summer-seat of the garden, however, there was another listener protected from her sight by thin spars.
Despite the lateness of the hour Margaret was too soft-hearted to rouse Jean, who had lain down in her clothes, trembling for her father. She went instead into Gavin’s room to look admiringly at him as he slept. Often Gavin woke to find that his mother had slipped in to save him the enormous trouble of opening a drawer for a clean collar, or of pouring the water into the basin with his own hand. Sometimes he caught her in the act of putting thick socks in the place of thin ones, and it must be admitted that her passion for keeping his belongings in boxes, and the boxes in secret places, and the secret places at the back of drawers, occasionally led to their being lost when wanted. “They are safe, at any rate, for I put them away some gait,” was then Margaret’s comfort, but less soothing to Gavin. Yet if he upbraided her in his hurry, it was to repent bitterly his temper the next instant, and to feel its effects more than she, temper being a weapon that we hold by the blade. When he awoke and saw her in his room he would pretend, unless he felt called upon to rage at her for self-neglect, to be still asleep, and then be filled with tenderness for her. A great writer has spoken sadly of the shock it would be to a mother to know her boy as he really is, but I think she often knows him better than he is known to cynical friends. We should be slower to think that the man at his worst is the real man, and certain that the better we are ourselves the less likely is he to be at his worst in our company. Every time he talks away his own character before us he is signifying contempt for ours.
On this morning Margaret only opened Gavin’s door to stand and look, for she was fearful of awakening him after his heavy night. Even before she saw that he still slept she noticed with surprise that, for the first time since he came to Thrums, he had put on his shutters. She concluded that he had done this lest the light should rouse him. He was not sleeping pleasantly, for now he put his open hand before his face, as if to guard himself, and again he frowned and seemed to draw back from something. He pointed his finger sternly to the north, ordering the weavers, his mother thought, to return to their homes, and then he muttered to himself so that she heard the words, “And if thy right hand offend thee cut it off, and cast it from thee, for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” Then suddenly he bent forward, his eyes open and fixed on the window. Thus he sat, for the space of half a minute, like one listening with painful intentness. When he lay back Margaret slipped away. She knew he was living the night over again, but not of the divit his right hand had cast, nor of the woman in the garden.
Gavin was roused presently by the sound of voices from Margaret’s room, where Jean, who had now gathered much news, was giving it to her mistress. Jean’s cheerfulness would have told him that her father was safe had he not wakened to thoughts of the Egyptian. I suppose he was at the window in an instant, unsnibbing the shutters and looking out as cautiously as a burglar might have looked in. The Egyptian was gone from the summer-seat. He drew a great breath.
But his troubles were not over. He had just lifted his ewer of water when these words from the kitchen capsized it: --
“Ay, an Egyptian. That’s what the auld folk call a gypsy. Weel, Mrs. Dishart, she led police and sojers sic a dance through Thrums as would baffle description, though I kent the fits and fors o’t as I dinna. Ay, but they gripped her in the end, and the queer thing is — —”
Gavin listened to no more. He suddenly sat down. The queer thing, of course, was that she had been caught in his garden. Yes, and doubtless queerer things about this hussy and her “husband” were being bawled from door to door. To the girl’s probable sufferings he gave no heed. What kind of man had he been a few hours ago to yield to the machinations of a woman who was so obviously the devil? Now he saw his folly in the face.
The tray in Jean’s hands clattered against the dresser, and Gavin sprang from his chair. He thought it was his elders at the front door.
In the parlour he found Margaret sorrowing for those whose mates had been torn from them, and Jean with a face flushed by talk. On ordinary occasions the majesty of the minister still cowed Jean, so that she could only gaze at him without shaking when in church, and then because she wore a veil. In the manse he was for taking a glance at sideways and then going away comforted, as a respectable woman may once or twice in a day look at her brooch in the pasteboard box as a means of helping her with her work. But with such a to-do in Thrums, and she the possessor of exclusive information, Jean’s reverence for Gavin only took her to-day as far as the door, where she lingered half in the parlour and half in the lobby, her eyes turned politely from the minister, but her ears his entirely.
“I thought I heard Jean telling you about the capture of the — of an Egyptian woman,” Gavin said to his mother, nervously.
“Did you cry to me?” Jean asked, turning round longingly. “But maybe the mistress will tell you about the Egyptian hersel.”
“Has she been taken to Tilliedrum?” Gavin asked in a hollow voice.
“Sup up your porridge, Gavin,” Margaret said. “I’ll have no speaking about this terrible night till you’ve eaten something.”
“I have no appetite,” the minister replied, pushing his plate from him. “Jean, answer me.”
“‘Deed, then,” said Jean willingly, “they hinna ta’en her to Tilliedrum.”
“For what reason?” asked Gavin, his dread increasing.
“For the reason that they couldna catch her,” Jean answered. “She spirited hersel awa’, the magerful crittur.”
“What! But I heard you say — —”
“Ay, they had her aince, but they couldna keep her. It’s like a witch story. They had her safe in the town-house, and baith shirra and captain guarding her, and syne in a clink she wasna there. A’ nicht they looked for her, but she hadna left so muckle as a foot-print ahint her, and in the tail of the day they had to up wi’ their tap in their lap and march awa without her.”
Gavin’s appetite returned.
“Has she been seen since the soldiers went away?” he asked, laying down his spoon with a new fear. “Where is she now?”
“No human eye has seen her,” Jean answered impressively. “Whaur is she now? Whaur does the flies vanish to in winter? We ken they’re some gait, but whaur?”
“But what are the people saying about her?”
“Daft things,” said Jean. “Old Charles Yuill gangs the length o’ hinting that she’s dead and buried.”
“She could not have buried herself, Jean,” Margaret said, mildly.
“I dinna ken. Charles says she’s even capable o’ that.”
Then Jean retired reluctantly (but leaving the door ajar) and Gavin fell to on his porridge. He was now so cheerful that Margaret wondered.
“If half the stories about this gypsy be true,” she said, “she must be more than a mere woman.”
“Less, you mean, mother,” Gavin said, with conviction. “She is a woman, and a sinful one.”
“Did you see her, Gavin?”
“I saw her. Mother, she flouted me!”
“The daring tawpie!” exclaimed Margaret.
“She is all that,” said the minister.
“Was she dressed just like an ordinary gypsy body? But you don’t notice clothes much, Gavin.”
“I noticed hers,” Gavin said, slowly, “she was in a green and red, I think, and barefooted.”
“Ay,” shouted Jean from the kitchen, startling both of them; “but she had a lang grey-like cloak too. She was seen jouking up closes in’t.”
Gavin rose, considerably annoyed, and shut the parlour door.
“Was she as bonny as folks say?” asked Margaret. “Jean says they speak of her beauty as unearthly.”
“Beauty of her kind,” Gavin explained learnedly, “is neither earthly nor heavenly.” He was seeing things as they are very clearly now. “What,” he said, “is mere physical beauty? Pooh!”
“And yet,” said Margaret, “the soul surely does speak through the face to some extent.”
“Do you really think so, mother?” Gavin asked, a little uneasily.
“I have always noticed it,” Margaret said, and then her son sighed.
“But I would let no face influence me a jot,” he said, recovering.
“Ah, Gavin, I’m thinking I’m the reason you pay so little regard to women’s faces. It’s no natural.”
“You’ve spoilt me, you see, mother, for ever caring for another woman. I would compare her to you, and then where would she be?”
“Sometime,” Margaret said, “you’ll think differently.”
“Never,” answered Gavin, with a violence that ended the conversation.
Soon afterwards he set off for the town, and in passing down the garden walk cast a guilty glance at the summer-seat. Something black was lying in one corner of it. He stopped irresolutely, for his mother was nodding to him from her window. Then he disappeared into the little arbour. What had caught his eye was a Bible. On the previous day, as he now remembered, he had been called away while studying in the garden, and had left his Bible on the summer-seat, a pencil between its pages. Not often probably had the Egyptian passed a night in such company.
But what was this? Gavin had not to ask himself the question. The gypsy’s cloak was lying neatly folded at the other end of the seat. Why had the woman not taken it with her? Hardly had he put this question when another stood in front of it. What was to be done with the cloak? He dared not leave it there for Jean to discover. He could not take it into the manse in daylight. Beneath the seat was a tool-chest without a lid, and into this he crammed the cloak. Then, having turned the box face downwards, he went about his duties. But many a time during the day he shivered to the marrow, reflecting suddenly that at this very moment Jean might be carrying the accursed thing (at arms’ length, like a dog in disgrace) to his mother.
Now let those who think that Gavin has not yet paid toll for taking the road with the Egyptian, follow the adventures of the cloak. Shortly after gloaming fell that night Jean encountered her master in the lobby of the manse. He was carrying something, and when he saw her he slipped it behind his back. Had he passed her openly she would have suspected nothing, but this made her look at him.
“Why do you stare so, Jean?” Gavin asked, conscience-stricken, and he stood with his back to the wall until she had retired in bewilderment.
“I have noticed her watching me sharply all day,” he said to himself, though it was only he who had been watching her.
Gavin carried the cloak to his bedroom, thinking to lock it away in his chest, but it looked so wicked lying there that he seemed to see it after the lid was shut.
The garret was the best place for it. He took it out of the chest and was opening his door gently, when there was Jean again. She had been employed very innocently in his mother’s room, but he said tartly --
“Jean, I really cannot have this,” which sent Jean to the kitchen with her apron at her eyes.
Gavin stowed the cloak beneath the garret bed, and an hour afterwards was engaged on his sermon, when he distinctly heard some one in the garret. He ran up the ladder with a terrible brow for Jean, but it was not Jean; it was Margaret.
“Mother,” he said in alarm, “what are you doing here?”
“I am only tidying up the garret, Gavin.”
“Yes, but — it is too cold for you. Did Jean — did Jean ask you to come up here?”
“Jean? She knows her place better.”
Gavin took Margaret down to the parlour, but his confidence in the garret had gone. He stole up the ladder again, dragged the cloak from its lurking place, and took it into the garden. He very nearly met Jean in the lobby again, but hearing him coming she fled precipitately, which he thought very suspicious.
In the garden he dug a hole, and there buried the cloak, but even now he was not done with it. He was wakened early by a noise of scraping in the garden, and his first thought was “Jean!” But peering from the window, he saw that the resurrectionist was a dog, which already had its teeth in the cloak.
That forenoon Gavin left the manse unostentatiously carrying a brown-paper parcel. He proceeded to the hill, and having dropped the parcel there, retired hurriedly. On his way home, nevertheless, he was over-taken by D. Fittis, who had been cutting down whins. Fittis had seen the parcel fall, and running after Gavin, returned it to him. Gavin thanked D. Fittis, and then sat down gloomily on the cemetery dyke. Half an hour afterwards he flung the parcel into a Tillyloss garden.
In the evening Margaret had news for him, got from Jean.
“Do you remember, Gavin, that the Egyptian every one is still speaking of, wore a long cloak? Well, would you believe it, the cloak was Captain Halliwell’s, and she took it from the town-house when she escaped. She is supposed to have worn it inside out. He did not discover that it was gone until he was leaving Thrums.”
“Mother, is this possible?” Gavin said.
“The policeman, Wearyworld, has told it. He was ordered, it seems, to look for the cloak quietly, and to take any one into custody in whose possession it was found.”
“Has it been found?”
The minister walked out of the parlour, for he could not trust his face. What was to be done now? The cloak was lying in mason Baxter’s garden, and Baxter was therefore, in all probability, within four-and-twenty hours of the Tilliedrum gaol.
“Does Mr. Dishart ever wear a cap at nichts?” Femie Wilkie asked Sam’l Fairweather three hours later.
“Na, na, he has ower muckle respect for his lum 88 hat,” answered Sam’l; “and richtly, for it’s the crowning stone o’ the edifice.”
“Then it couldna hae been him I met at the back o’ Tillyloss the now,” said Femie, “though like him it was. He joukit back when he saw me.”
While Femie was telling her story in the Tenements, mason Baxter, standing at the window which looked into his garden, was shouting, “Wha’s that in my yard?” There was no answer, and Baxter closed his window, under the impression that he had been speaking to a cat. The man in the cap then emerged from the corner where he had been crouching, and stealthily felt for something among the cabbages and pea sticks. It was no longer there, however, and by-and-by he retired empty-handed.
“The Egyptian’s cloak has been found,” Margaret was able to tell Gavin next day. “Mason Baxter found it yesterday afternoon.”
“In his garden?” Gavin asked hurriedly.
“No; in the quarry, he says, but according to Jean he is known not to have been at the quarry to-day. Some seem to think that the gypsy gave him the cloak for helping her to escape, and that he has delivered it up lest he should get into difficulties.”
“Whom has he given it to, mother?” Gavin asked.
“To the policeman.”
“And has Wearyworld sent it back to Halliwell?”
“Yes. He told Jean he sent it off at once, with the information that the masons had found it in the quarry.”
The next day was Sabbath, when a new trial, now to be told, awaited Gavin in the pulpit; but it had nothing to do with the cloak, of which I may here record the end. Wearyworld had not forwarded it to its owner; Meggy, his wife, took care of that. It made its reappearance in Thrums, several months after the riot, as two pairs of Sabbath breeks for her sons, James and Andrew.
the little minister
First published serially in Good Words 1891