THE GLEN AT BREAK OF DAY.
My first intimation that the burns were in flood came from Waster Lunny, close on the strike of ten o’clock. This was some minutes before they had any rain in Thrums. I was in the school-house, now piecing together the puzzle Lord Rintoul had left with me, and anon starting upright as McKenzie’s hand seemed to tighten on my arm. Waster Lunny had been whistling to me (with his fingers in his mouth) for some time before I heard him and hurried out. I was surprised and pleased, knowing no better, to be met on the threshold by a whisk of rain.
The night was not then so dark but that when I reached the Quharity I could see the farmer take shape on the other side of it. He wanted me to exult with him, I thought, in the end of the drought, and I shouted that I would fling him the stilts.
“It’s yoursel’ that wants them,” he answered excitedly, “if you’re fleid to be left alone in the school-house the nicht. Do you hear me, dominie? There has been frichtsome rain among the hills, and the Bog burn is coming down like a sea. It has carried awa the miller’s brig, and the steading o’ Muckle Pirley is standing three feet in water.”
“You’re dreaming, man,” I roared back, but beside his news he held my doubts of no account.
“The Retery’s in flood,” he went on, “and running wild through Hazel Wood; T’nowdunnie’s tattie field’s out o’ sicht, and at the Kirkton they’re fleid they’ve lost twa kye.”
“There has been no rain here,” I stammered, incredulously.
“It’s coming now,” he replied. “And listen: the story’s out that the Backbone has fallen into the loch. You had better cross, dominie, and thole out the nicht wi’ us.”
The Backbone was a piece of mountain-side overhanging a loch among the hills, and legend said that it would one day fall forward and squirt all the water into the glen. Something of the kind had happened, but I did not believe it then; with little wit I pointed to the shallow Quharity.
“It may come down at any minute,” the farmer answered, “and syne, mind you, you’ll be five miles frae Waster Lunny, for there’ll be no crossing but by the Brig o’ March. If you winna come, I maun awa back. I mauna bide langer on the wrang side o’ the Moss ditch, though it has been as dry this month back as a rabbit’s roady. But if you—” His voice changed. “God’s sake, man,” he cried, “you’re ower late. Look at that! Dinna look — run, run!”
If I had not run before he bade me, I might never have run again on earth. I had seen a great shadowy yellow river come riding down the Quharity. I sprang from it for my life; and when next I looked behind, it was upon a turbulent loch, the further bank lost in darkness. I was about to shout to Waster Lunny, when a monster rose in the torrent between me and the spot where he had stood. It frightened me to silence until it fell, when I knew it was but a tree that had been flung on end by the flood. For a time there was no answer to my cries, and I thought the farmer had been swept away. Then I heard his whistle, and back I ran recklessly through the thickening darkness to the school-house. When I saw the tree rise, I had been on ground hardly wet as yet with the rain; but by the time Waster Lunny sent that reassuring whistle to me I was ankle-deep in water, and the rain was coming down like hail. I saw no lightning.
For the rest of the night I was only out once, when I succeeded in reaching the hen-house and brought all my fowls safely to the kitchen, except a hen which would not rise off her young. Between us we had the kitchen floor, a pool of water; and the rain had put out my fires already, as effectually as if it had been an overturned broth-pot. That I never took off my clothes that night I need not say, though of what was happening in the glen I could only guess. A flutter against my window now and again, when the rain had abated, told me of another bird that had flown there to die; and with Waster Lunny, I kept up communication by waving a light, to which he replied in a similar manner. Before morning, however, he ceased to answer my signals, and I feared some catastrophe had occurred at the farm. As it turned out, the family was fighting with the flood for the year’s shearing of wool, half of which eventually went down the waters, with the wool-shed on top of it.
The school-house stands too high to fear any flood, but there were moments when I thought the rain would master it. Not only the windows and the roof were rattling then, but all the walls, and I was like one in a great drum. When the rain was doing its utmost, I heard no other sound; but when the lull came, there was the wash of a heavy river, or a crack as of artillery that told of landslips, or the plaintive cry of the peesweep as it rose in the air, trying to entice the waters away from its nest.
It was a dreary scene that met my gaze at break of day. Already the Quharity had risen six feet, and in many parts of the glen it was two hundred yards wide. Waster Lunny’s cornfield looked like a bog grown over with rushes, and what had been his turnips had become a lake with small islands in it. No dike stood whole except one that the farmer, unaided, had built in a straight line from the road to the top of Mount Bare, and my own, the further end of which dipped in water. Of the plot of firs planted fifty years earlier to help on Waster Lunny’s crops, only a triangle had withstood the night.
Even with the aid of my field-glass I could not estimate the damage on more distant farms, for the rain, though now thin and soft, as it continued for six days, was still heavy and of a brown color. After breakfast — which was interrupted by my bantam cock’s twice spilling my milk — I saw Waster Lunny and his son, Matthew, running towards the shepherd’s house with ropes in their hands. The house, I thought, must be in the midst beyond; and then I sickened, knowing all at once that it should be on this side of the mist. When I had nerve to look again, I saw that though the roof had fallen in, the shepherd was astride one of the walls, from which he was dragged presently through the water by the help of the ropes. I remember noticing that he returned to his house with the rope still about him, and concluded that he had gone back to save some of his furniture. I was wrong, however. There was too much to be done at the farm to allow this, but Waster Lunny had consented to Duncan’s forcing his way back to the shieling to stop the clock. To both men it seemed horrible to let a clock go on ticking in a deserted house.
Having seen this rescue accomplished, I was letting my glass roam in the opposite direction, when one of its shakes brought into view something on my own side of the river. I looked at it long, and saw it move slightly. Was it a human being? No, it was a dog. No, it was a dog and something else. I hurried out to see more clearly, and after a first glance the glass shook so in my hands that I had to rest it on the dike. For a full minute, I daresay, did I look through the glass without blinking, and then I needed to look no more. That black patch was, indeed, Gavin.
He lay quite near the school-house, but I had to make a circuit of half a mile to reach him. It was pitiful to see the dog doing its best to come to me, and falling every few steps. The poor brute was discolored almost beyond recognition; and when at last it reached me, it lay down at my feet and licked them. I stepped over it and ran on recklessly to Gavin. At first I thought he was dead. If tears rolled down my cheeks, they were not for him.
I was no strong man even in those days, but I carried him to the school-house, the dog crawling after us. Gavin I put upon my bed, and I lay down beside him, holding him close to me, that some of the heat of my body might be taken in by his. When he was able to look at me, however, it was not with understanding, and in vain did my anxiety press him with questions. Only now and again would some word in my speech strike upon his brain and produce at least an echo. To “Did you meet Lord Rintoul’s dogcart?” he sat up, saying quickly:
“Listen, the dogcart!”
“Egyptian” was not that forenoon among the words he knew, and I did not think of mentioning “hill.” At “rain” he shivered; but “Spittal” was what told me most.
“He has taken her back,” he replied at once, from which I learned that Gavin now knew as much of Babbie as I did.
I made him as comfortable as possible, and despairing of learning anything from him in his present state, I let him sleep. Then I went out into the rain, very anxious, and dreading what he might have to tell me when he woke. I waded and jumped my way as near to the farm as I dared go, and Waster Lunny, seeing me, came to the water’s edge. At this part the breadth of the flood was not forty yards, yet for a time our voices could no more cross its roar than one may send a snowball through a stone wall. I know not whether the river then quieted for a space, or if it was only that the ears grow used to dins as the eyes distinguish the objects in a room that is at first black to them; but after a little we were able to shout our remarks across, much as boys fling pebbles, many to fall into the water, but one occasionally to reach the other side. Waster Lunny would have talked of the flood, but I had not come here for that.
“How were you home so early from the prayer-meeting last night?” I bawled.
“No meeting ... I came straucht hame ... but terrible stories ... Mr. Dishart,” was all I caught after Waster Lunny had flung his words across a dozen times.
I could not decide whether it would be wise to tell him that Gavin was in the school-house, and while I hesitated he continued to shout:
“Some woman ... the Session ... Lang Tammas ... God forbid ... maun back to the farm ... byre running like a mill-dam.”
He signed to me that he must be off, but my signals delayed him, and after much trouble he got my question, “Any news about Lord Rintoul?” My curiosity about the earl must have surprised him, but he answered:
“Marriage is to be the day ... cannon.”
I signed that I did not grasp his meaning.
“A cannon is to be fired as soon as they’re man and wife,” he bellowed. “We’ll hear it.”
With that we parted. On my way home, I remember, I stepped on a brood of drowned partridge. I was only out half an hour, but I had to wring my clothes as if they were fresh from the tub.
The day wore on, and I did not disturb the sleeper. A dozen times, I suppose, I had to relight my fire of wet peats and roots; but I had plenty of time to stare out at the window, plenty of time to think. Probably Gavin’s life depended on his sleeping, but that was not what kept my hands off him. Knowing so little of what had happened in Thrums since I left it, I was forced to guess, and my conclusion was that the earl had gone off with his own, and that Gavin in a frenzy had followed them. My wisest course, I thought, was to let him sleep until I heard the cannon, when his struggle for a wife must end. Fifty times at least did I stand regarding him as he slept; and if I did not pity his plight sufficiently, you know the reason. What were Margaret’s sufferings at this moment? Was she wringing her hands for her son lost in the flood, her son in disgrace with the congregation? By one o’clock no cannon had sounded, and my suspense had become intolerable. I shook Gavin awake, and even as I shook him demanded a knowledge of all that had happened since we parted at Nanny’s gate.
“How long ago is that?” he asked, with bewilderment.
“It was last night,” I answered. “This morning I found you senseless on the hillside, and brought you here, to the Glen Quharity school-house. That dog was with you.”
He looked at the dog, but I kept my eyes on him, and I saw intelligence creep back, like a blush, into his face.
“Now I remember,” he said, shuddering. “You have proved yourself my friend, sir, twice in the four and twenty hours.”
“Only once, I fear,” I replied gloomily. “I was no friend when I sent you to the earl’s bride last night.”
“You know who she is?” he cried, clutching me, and finding it agony to move his limbs.
“I know now,” I said, and had to tell him how I knew before he would answer another question. Then I became listener, and you who read know to what alarming story.
“And all that time,” I cried reproachfully, when he had done, “you gave your mother not a thought.”
“Not a thought,” he answered; and I saw that he pronounced a harsher sentence on himself than could have come from me. “All that time!” he repeated, after a moment. “It was only a few minutes, while the ten o’clock bell was ringing.”
“Only a few minutes,” I said, “but they changed the channel of the Quharity, and perhaps they have done not less to you.”
“That may be,” he answered gravely, “but it is of the present I must think just now. Mr. Ogilvy, what assurance have I, while lying here helpless, that the marriage at the Spittal is not going on?”
“None, I hope,” I said to myself, and listened longingly for the cannon. But to him I only pointed out that no woman need go through a form of marriage against her will.
“Rintoul carried her off with no possible purport,” he said, “but to set my marriage at defiance, and she has had a conviction always that to marry me would be to ruin me. It was only in the shiver Lord Rintoul’s voice in the darkness sent through her that she yielded to my wishes. If she thought that marriage last night could be annulled by another to-day, she would consent to the second, I believe, to save me from the effects of the first. You are incredulous, sir; but you do not know of what sacrifices love is capable.”
Something of that I knew, but I did not tell him. I had seen from his manner rather than his words that he doubted the validity of the gypsy marriage, which the king had only consented to celebrate because Babbie was herself an Egyptian. The ceremony had been interrupted in the middle.
“It was no marriage,” I said, with a confidence I was far from feeling.
“In the sight of God,” he replied excitedly, “we took each other for man and wife.”
I had to hold him down in bed.
“You are too weak to stand, man,” I said, “and yet you think you could start off this minute for the Spittal.”
“I must go,” he cried. “She is my wife. That impious marriage may have taken place already.”
“Oh, that it had!” was my prayer. “It has not,” I said to him. “A cannon is to be fired immediately after the ceremony, and all the glen will hear it.”
I spoke on the impulse, thinking to allay his desire to be off; but he said, “Then I may yet be in time.” Somewhat cruelly I let him rise, that he might realize his weakness. Every bone in him cried out at his first step, and he sank into a chair.
“You will go to the Spittal for me?” he implored.
“I will not,” I told him. “You are asking me to fling away my life.”
To prove my words I opened the door, and he saw what the flood was doing. Nevertheless, he rose and tottered several times across the room, trying to revive his strength. Though every bit of him was aching, I saw that he would make the attempt.
“Listen to me,” I said. “Lord Rintoul can maintain with some reason that it was you rather than he who abducted Babbie. Nevertheless, there will not, I am convinced, be any marriage at the Spittal to-day. When he carried her off from the Toad’s-hole, he acted under impulses not dissimilar to those that took you to it. Then, I doubt not, he thought possession was all the law, but that scene on the hill has staggered him by this morning. Even though she thinks to save you by marrying him, he will defer his wedding until he learns the import of yours.”
I did not believe in my own reasoning, but I would have said anything to detain him until that cannon was fired. He seemed to read my purpose, for he pushed my arguments from him with his hands, and continued to walk painfully to and fro.
“To defer the wedding,” he said, “would be to tell all his friends of her gypsy origin, and of me. He will risk much to avoid that.”
“In any case,” I answered, “you must now give some thought to those you have forgotten, your mother and your church.”
“That must come afterwards,” he said firmly. “My first duty is to my wife.”
The door swung to sharply just then, and he started. He thought it was the cannon.
“I wish to God it had been!” I cried, interpreting his thoughts.
“Why do you wish me ill?” he asked.
“Mr. Dishart,” I said solemnly, rising and facing him, and disregarding his question, “if that woman is to be your wife, it will be at a cost you cannot estimate till you return to Thrums. Do you think that if your congregation knew of this gypsy marriage they would have you for their minister for another day? Do you enjoy the prospect of taking one who might be an earl’s wife into poverty — ay, and disgraceful poverty? Do you know your mother so little as to think she could survive your shame? Let me warn you, sir, of what I see. I see another minister in the Auld Licht kirk, I see you and your wife stoned through our wynds, stoned from Thrums, as malefactors have been chased out of it ere now; and as certainly as I see these things I see a hearse standing at the manse door, and stern men denying a son’s right to help to carry his mother’s coffin to it. Go your way, sir; but first count the cost.”
His face quivered before these blows, but all he said was, “I must dree my dreed.”
“God is merciful,” I went on, “and these things need not be. He is more merciful to you, sir, than to some, for the storm that He sent to save you is ruining them. And yet the farmers are to-day thanking Him for every pound of wool, every blade of corn He has left them, while you turn from Him because He would save you, not in your way, but in His. It was His hand that stayed your marriage. He meant Babbie for the earl; and if it is on her part a loveless match, she only suffers for her own sins. Of that scene on the hill no one in Thrums, or in the glen, need ever know. Rintoul will see to it that the gypsies vanish from these parts forever, and you may be sure the Spittal will soon be shut up. He and McKenzie have as much reason as yourself to be silent. You, sir, must go back to your congregation, who have heard as yet only vague rumors that your presence will dispel. Even your mother will remain ignorant of what has happened. Your absence from the prayer-meeting you can leave to me to explain.”
He was so silent that I thought him mine, but his first words undeceived me.
“I thought I had nowhere so keen a friend,” he said; “but, Mr. Ogilvy, it is devil’s work you are pleading. Am I to return to my people to act a living lie before them to the end of my days? Do you really think that God devastated a glen to give me a chance of becoming a villain? No, sir, I am in His hands, and I will do what I think right.”
“You will be dishonored,” I said, “in the sight of God and man.”
“Not in God’s sight,” he replied. “It was a sinless marriage, Mr. Ogilvy, and I do not regret it. God ordained that she and I should love each other, and He put it into my power to save her from that man. I took her as my wife before Him, and in His eyes I am her husband. Knowing that, sir, how could I return to Thrums without her?”
I had no answer ready for him. I knew that in my grief for Margaret I had been advocating an unworthy course, but I would not say so. I went gloomily to the door, and there, presently, his hand fell on my shoulder.
“Your advice came too late, at any rate,” he said. “You forget that the precentor was on the hill and saw everything.”
It was he who had forgotten to tell me this, and to me it was the most direful news of all.
“My God!” I cried. “He will have gone to your mother and told her.” And straightway I began to lace my boots.
“Where are you going?” he asked, staring at me.
“To Thrums,” I answered harshly.
“You said that to venture out into the glen was to court death,” he reminded me.
“What of that?” I said, and hastily put on my coat.
“Mr. Ogilvy,” he cried, “I will not allow you to do this for me.”
“For you?” I said bitterly. “It is not for you.”
I would have gone at once, but he got in front of me, asking, “Did you ever know my mother?”
“Long ago,” I answered shortly, and he said no more, thinking, I suppose, that he knew all. He limped to the door with me, and I had only advanced a few steps when I understood better than before what were the dangers I was to venture into. Since I spoke to Waster Lunny the river had risen several feet, and even the hillocks in his turnip-field were now submerged. The mist was creeping down the hills. But what warned me most sharply that the flood was not satisfied yet was the top of the school-house dike; it was lined with field-mice. I turned back, and Gavin, mistaking my meaning, said I did wisely.
“I have not changed my mind,” I told him, and then had some difficulty in continuing. “I expect,” I said, “to reach Thrums safely, even though I should be caught in the mist, but I shall have to go round by the Kelpie brig in order to get across the river, and it is possible that — that something may befall me.”
I have all my life been something of a coward, and my voice shook when I said this, so that Gavin again entreated me to remain at the school-house, saying that if I did not he would accompany me.
“And so increase my danger tenfold?” I pointed out. “No, no, Mr. Dishart, I go alone; and if I can do nothing with the congregation, I can at least send your mother word that you still live. But if anything should happen to me, I want you — —”
But I could not say what I had come back to say. I had meant to ask him, in the event of my death, to take a hundred pounds which were the savings of my life; but now I saw that this might lead to Margaret’s hearing of me, and so I stayed my words. It was bitter to me this, and yet, after all, a little thing when put beside the rest.
“Good-by, Mr. Dishart,” I said abruptly. I then looked at my desk, which contained some trifles that were once Margaret’s. “Should anything happen to me,” I said, “I want that old desk to be destroyed unopened.”
“Mr. Ogilvy,” he answered gently, “you are venturing this because you loved my mother. If anything does befall you, be assured that I will tell her what you attempted for her sake.”
I believe he thought it was to make some such request that I had turned back.
“You must tell her nothing about me,” I exclaimed, in consternation. “Swear that my name will never cross your lips before her. No, that is not enough. You must forget me utterly, whether I live or die, lest some time you should think of me and she should read your thoughts. Swear, man!”
“Must this be?” he said, gazing at me.
“Yes,” I answered more calmly, “it must be. For nearly a score of years I have been blotted out of your mother’s life, and since she came to Thrums my one care has been to keep my existence from her. I have changed my burying-ground even from Thrums to the glen, lest I should die before her, and she, seeing the hearse go by the Tenements, might ask, ‘Whose funeral is this?’”
In my anxiety to warn him, I had said too much. His face grew haggard, and there was fear to speak on it; and I saw, I knew, that some damnable suspicion of Margaret —--
“She was my wife!” I cried sharply. “We were married by the minister of Harvie. You are my son.”
the little minister
First published serially in Good Words 1891