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.”
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the little minister
First published serially in Good Words 1891