THE VENGEANCE OF ‘YON’
Gash Gibbie surveyed the sight with a kind of twisted satisfaction. He went hirpling about the body round and round. He squatted with crossed legs at its head.
‘What think ye o' that?’ he asked, ‘that's my mither. She's near as bonny as me, think ye no? Yon micht hae made her bonnier to look at, gin He was to be so ill to her.’
And the monster crouched still lower, and took the terrible scarlet-stained face and neck on his knees.
‘Mither! mither!’ he wailed, ‘I aye telled ye it wad come to this—mockin' Yon disna do. A wee while, maybe, He lets ye gang on; but no for lang! Yon can bide His time, and juist when ye are crawin' croose, and thinkin' on how blythe and canty ye are—blaff! like a flaught o' fire—Yon comes upon ye, and where are ye?’
He took a long and apparently well-satisfied look at his mother.
‘Aye, there ye lie, an' by my faith, ye are no bonny, mither o' mine. Mony is the time I telled ye what it wad be, afore Yon had dune wi' ye.’
Small wonder that it chilled our blood to hear the twisted being cry out thus upon the mother that bore him. He seemed even no little pleased that what he had foretold had come to pass. So we stood, Wat and I, in silent amaze before him, as the storm continued to blare till the whole heaven above us appeared but the single mouth of a black trumpet.
Sometimes we seemed to be in a large place, ribbed and rafted with roaring sound, upholstered with lightning flashes of pale violet and blue. Then again the next moment we were shut within a tent of velvet blackness like a pall, with only the echoes of the warring midnight rolling away back among the hills. There seemed no God of Pity abroad that night to look after puir muir-wandered folk, but only mocking devils riding rough-shod on the horses of the pit.
‘Come away hame, Gibbie,’ said I, ‘ye can do her little good. I fear she's by wi' it!’
‘By wi' it!’ quoth the natural, fleeringly. ‘Na, only beginning wi' it. D'ye no ken, hill-man-wi'-the-hirpling-leg, that Yon has gotten her. I can see her stannin' afore Yon, wi' her face like red fire, a black lie in her mouth and ill-intent in her heart. For as the tree falls, so doth it lie.’
The imp seemed to have gotten the words at some field-preaching.
‘Think ye I didna warn her?’ he went on. ‘My braw chiels, ye hae gotten your warnin' this nicht! Meddle na wi' Yon, neither dare Him to His face lest He be angry. For juist like Gibbie killin' a speckly taed, Yon can set His heel on ye!’
He stroked the hair off the dead woman's brow with a hand like a hairy claw.
‘Aye, an' ye were na sic an ill mither to me, though ye selled yoursel' to Ye-Ken-Wha! Whatna steer there is up there aboot the soul o' ae puir auld body. Hear till it——’
And he waved his hands to the four airts of heaven, and called us to hearken to the hills shaking themselves to pieces. ‘Siccan a steer aboot a puir feckless auld woman gaun to her ain ill place! I wonder Yon is no' shamed o' himsel'!’
And the twisted man-thing put his hands to his brow and pressed the palms upon his eyes, as if to shut out the unceasing pulsing of the lightning and the roar of the anger of God breaking like sea upon the mountains.
‘Sae muckle squandered for sae little—an' after a' but little pleasure in the thing! I dinna see what there is in the Black Man's service to mak' siccan a brag aboot. Gin ye sup tasty kail wi' him in the forenicht, he aye caa's roond wi' the lawin' i' the mornin'!
‘Losh! Losh! Sae muckle for sae little. I declare I will cut oot the three marks that my mither made on me, and gang doon to Peden at the Shalloch. I want na mair sic wark as this! Na, though I was born wi' the Black Man's livery on me!
‘Preserve us!’ he cried. ‘This is as fearsome as that year there was nae meat in the hoose, and Gash Gibbie brocht some back, and aye brocht it, and brocht it even as it was needed. And Kate o' the Corp-licht, she readied it and asked nae quastions. But only tearin' belly-hunger gied us strength to eat that awesome meat. An' a' the neighbours died o' starvation at Tonskeen and the Star an' the bonny Hill o' the Buss—a' but Gib an' his mither, their leevin' lanes. But yae nicht Yon sent Gibbie's sin to find him oot; or maybe the Black Thing in the Hole gat lowse, because it was his hour.
And at ony rate puir Gibbie gat a terrible fricht that nicht.
‘Wad ye like to hear? Aweel, puir Gibbie was lying on his bed up that stair, an' what think ye there cam' to him?’
He paused and looked at us with a countenance so blanched and terrible that almost we turned and ran. For the lightning played upon it till it seemed to glow with unholy light, and that not from without but from within. It was the most terrifying thing to be alone with such a monstrous living creature, and such a dead woman in the lonesome place he had called the ‘Nick of the Deid Wife.’ What with the chattering of our teeth, the agitation of our spirits, and the flicker of the fire, the old dead witch seemed actually to rise and nod at us.
So Gash Gibbie, puir man, lay and listened in his naked bed, for he had gotten his fill that nicht, though a' the lave were hungry—an' that o' his ain providin'. But as he lay sleepless, he heard a step come to the door, the sneck lifted itsel', an' a foot that wasna his mither's came into the passage, dunt-duntin' like a lameter hirplin' on two staves!
An' then there cam' a hard footstep on the stair, and a rattle o' fearsome-like sounds, as the thing cam' up the ladder. Gibbie kenned na what it micht be. An' when the door opened an' the man wi' the wooden feet cam' in—preserve me, but he was a weary-lookin' tyke.
'Whaur came ye frae?' says puir Gash Gibbie.
'Frae the Grave!' says he. He hadna muckle to say, but his e'en war like fiery gimblets in his head.
'What mak's your e'en bones sae white an' deep?'
'The Grave!' says he. He hadna muckle to say, but he spak' aye mair dour and wearisome than ever.
‘'What mak's ye lauch sae wide at puir Gibbie?'
'The Grave!' says he. He hadna muckle to say, but syne he steppit nearer nearer to the bedside.
'What made that great muckle hole in your side?'
'You made it!' cried the ghaist, loupin' at Gibbie's throat; an' puir Gib kenned nae mair.’
And even as the monster shouted out the last words—the words of the spectre of his cannibal vision—Gash Gibbie seemed to us to dilate and lean forward to spring upon us. The wild-fire reeled about as though the very elements were drunken, and Wat and I fairly turned and fled, shouting insanely with terror as we ran—leaving the silent stricken witch with the face of blood, and the misshapen elf, her hell's brood progeny, raving and shouting on the hillside—these two alone at midnight in the ‘Nick of the Deid Wife.’
‘Aye, rin, rin,’ we heard him call after us. ‘Rin fast, and Yon will maybe no' catch ye—till it is your hour!’
And truly Wat and I did run in earnest, stumbling and crying out in our terror—now falling and now getting up, then falling to the running again without a single reasonable word. But as we came hot-foot over the Rig of Lochricaur, we seemed to run into the sheeted rain. For where we had been hitherto, only the blue dry fire had ringed us, but here we ran into a downpour as though the fountains of the deep of heaven had broken up and were falling in a white spate upon the world.
We were wet, weary, and terrified, more than we had ever been in our lives, before we reached the hermitage of the cave of Macaterick. There we found the women waiting for us, listening fearfully to the roar of the storm without, and hearkening in the lown blinks to Auld Anton Lennox praying—while the lightning seemed to run into the cave, and shine on the blade of the sword he held gripped in his right hand. So we stripped our wet clothes, and lay in the outer place all the night, where there was a fire of red peats, while the women withdrew themselves into their inner sanctuary. I could see the anxiety in their eyes when we came in, for they could not but discern the ghastly terror in our faces. But without any agreement between ourselves, Wat and I silently resolved that we should not acquaint any of the party with the hideous judgments of that night, to which we had been eye-witnesses.
THE NICK O' THE DEID WIFE
I went out, and the whole night seemed empty about me. The deep and wide basin between the hollow palms of the hills was filled with an eery leme of flame, flickering up from the ground.
I took my way with as great strides as I could compass, back to the bower under the trees. The thunder rolled continuously about and about. At times it seemed to recede far away, but always sounding from different places, as though many peals were running races one with the other. Then the lightning flickered, and keen little arrows sped hither and thither till the whole sky twanged like a harp.
It seemed a hundred miles to the shieling on the hill. And when I came near I was astonished and greatly affrighted to hear the sound of voices, and at least one of them the voice of a man. A strange fear came over me; hardly, I think, the fear of the King's men.
‘I hae brocht wi' me my silver spune,’ said a voice that went to my heart; ‘I made siccar o' my silver spoon. Gin I hae to gang to the heather for the Covenant, at least I shall gang as a lady!’
It was my mother's voice, and I ran down to her, falling into her arms, and bidding her to be quiet in the same breath.
Wat had just arrived with my mother and little Margaret of Glen Vernock, who, winding herself about all our hearts, had become as her own child to my mother in the days of her loneliness. They were weary and in need of rest; but when I had told my news and the warning I had gotten from Gash Gibbie in the fearsome precincts of the hut of Corp-licht Kate, every one felt the need of at once forsaking the Bower of the Star and betaking ourselves to Cove Macaterick—which, if not so pleasant or commodious, was at least far more safe.
So we loaded us with Hugh Kerr's meal, and the little bits of things that the lassies had gathered about them or brought with them. My mother carried only an oaken staff in her hand, and in a satchel at her girdle her beloved silver spoon (with ‘Mary Hope’ on it in antique letters), which her father had given her for her own when she learned to read, and first took her place at the table above the salt.
‘O what wad he hae said, that was Lord President of Session in his time, gin he had seen his dochter Mary linkin' ower the heather wi' her coats kilted in her auld age?’ my mother cried out once when we hurried her. For she had ever a great notion of her lineage—though indeed the Hopes are nothing to compare with the Gordons for antiquity or distinction.
‘I think your father was 'at the horn' mair nor yince himsel', mither,’ said I, remembering certain daffing talk of my father's.
‘Aye, and that is just as true,’ said my mother, reconciling herself to her position, ‘forbye it is weel kenned that the wife aye wears the cockade of her lord.’
And at the word I thought of my Lady of Lochinvar, and hearkened to Wat talking low to Kate McGhie. But as for me I kept my mother by my side, and left Maisie Lennox to herself, remembering the fifth commandment—and knowing likewise that it would please Maisie best if I took care of my mother.
Thus we came to Cove Macaterick.
Now the cove upon the hillside is not wet and chill as almost all sea caves are, where the water stands on the floor and drips from every crevice. But it was at least fairly dry, if not warm, and had been roughly laid with bog-wood dug from the flowes, not squared at all, but only filled in with heather tops till the floor was elastic like the many-plied carpets of Whitehall.
There was, as I have said, an inner and an outer cave, one opening out of the other, each apartment being about sixteen feet every way, but much higher towards the roof. And so it remained till late years, when, as I hear from the herd of the Shalloch, the rocks of the gairy face have settled more down upon themselves, and so have contracted the space. But the cave remains to this day on the Back Hill of the Star over the waters of Loch Macaterick. And the place is still very lonely. Only the whaups, the ernes, and the mountain sheep cry there, even as they did in our hiding times.
We gave the inner (and higher) room to the women folk, and divided the space with a plaid hung up at the stone steps which formed a doorway.
We found Anton Lennox much recovered, but still very weak and pale. He sat propped up on his heather bed against the side of the cave. His countenance appeared stern and warlike, even when it was too dark to see, as it mostly was, his great sword leaning against the wall by his side.
I need not tell of the joy there was when Maisie Lennox greeted her father, and we that had been so wide scattered drew together once again. But as soon as I had told Wat of the happenings at the hut of Corp-licht Kate, nothing would serve him but we must set out and try to intercept the witch from fulfilling her mission. For if she brought the soldiers upon us, our trail from the bower among the trees was fresh and might be followed. Wat was determined at all costs to turn the witch; and, having brought her to her house, to keep a watch upon her there—at least till the rain had washed away our foot-prints down the mountain side, and confused them among the moss-hags.
So leaving most unwillingly the snug and sheltered place of Cove Macaterick, we stepped out into the gloomy and threatening night. The wild-fire still flickered, and the thunder rolled continuously; but the rain held off. The natural had mentioned that his mother was making over the hills toward Straiton, where for the time being Mardrochat, the informer, dwelt, and where was quartered a troop of horse for the overawing of the country.
We decided, therefore, that we should take our course in that direction, which led past Peden's hut, where the wanderer had abode so often. It was an uncanny night, but in some fashion we stumbled along—now falling into moss-hags almost to the waist, and now scrambling out again, and so on without a word of complaining. Wat's attire was not now such as that he had donned to visit my Lady Wellwood. It was but of stout hodden grey and a checked plaid like the rest.
So we mounted shoulder after shoulder of heathery hillside, like vessels that labour over endless billows of the sea against a head wind. The thunder cloud which seemed to brood upon the outer circle of the hills, and arch over the country of Macaterick and the Star, now grumbled nearer and louder. Not seldom there came a fierce, white, wimpling flash, and the encompassing mountains seemed ready to burn up in the glare. Then ensued darkness blacker than ever, and the thunder shaking the world, as though it had been an ill-builded house-place with skillets and pans clattering on the wall.
We had been thus walking for some while, bearing breast to the brae all the time, and leaning forward even as a horse leans to its collar. We came in time near to the height of the pass. We could not see a yard before us. But suddenly we felt the ground begin to level in front; and lo! in a moment we were in the throat of the defile, with the hills black above us on either side. Suddenly there came a terrible white flash of lightning, brighter and longer continued than any we had seen. The very air seemed to grow blue-black like indigo. The thunder tore the heavens, galloping without ceasing. Flash followed rending flash. Immediately before us on a hillock we saw a wondrous sight. There sat Gash Gibbie, the mis-shaped idiot, crouched squat like a toad, at the head of a woman who lay with her arms straight at her sides, as though stretched for burial.
As we stood illumined against the murky blackness of the pass, the monstrous thing caught sight of us, and waved his hands, dancing meantime (as it seemed) upon spindles of legs. How he had come so far and so swiftly on such a night I cannot tell. But without doubt, there he was on the highest rock of the pass, with the dead woman stretched at his feet, and the fitful blue gleam of the lightning playing about him. And I warrant you it was not a comely or a canny sight.
‘Come ye here,’ cried the idiot lad, wavering above us as though he were dancing in the reek of the nether pit, ‘an' see what Yon has done to my mither. I aye telled her how it wad be. It doesna do to strive wi' Yon. For Yon can gie ye your paiks so brave and easy. But my mither, she wad never hear reason, and so there she lies, dead streeked in the 'Nick o' the Deid Wife.' YON has riven the life frae my mither!’
We were close at his side by this time, and we saw an irksome sight, that shook our nerves more than the thunder. A woman of desperately evil countenance lay looking past us, her eyes fixed with an expression of bitter wrath and scorn upon the black heavens. Her face and hands were stained of a deep crimson colour, either by the visitation of God or made to seem so by the flickering flame of wild-fire that played about us.
THE HOUSE OF THE BLACK CATS
Having bidden such good-e'en to the maids as was severally due to them, I crossed the Nick of the Gadlach and went whistling over the moor. I took a new road over the heather, and was just at the turning of the Eglin Lane, when, deep in the howe of the glen, I came on the strangest kind of cot-house. It was piled together of the rough bowder stones of the country, their edges undressed and gaping, the spaces between them filled in with faggots of heather and plastered with stiff bluish clay from the burn-sides. The roof was of branches of the fir trees long buried in the moss, and was thatched with heather. There was an opening in the middle, from which a smoke arose. And I heard a sound like singing from within—a sound that made my flesh creep.
I went to the door and with my knuckle knocked gently, as is our fashion in that part of the country, crying, ‘Are ye within, good wife?’
Whereat the strangest unearthly voice answered back to me, as it had been some one reading in the Bible and laughing at the same time—a horrid thing to hear in that still place and so near the defenceless young lassies in the Bower of the Star.
‘The waters of Meribah—the waters of Meribah—for they were bitter!’ it cried in a kind of wail. ‘Come ben and hae some brose!’ And then the thing laughed again.
I took courage to look within, but because it was dark I saw nothing. The whole interior was full of the smoor of reek, and strange things sped round and round, crossing each other and passing the door continually, like the staves and buckets of a water-mill running round.
‘Come awa' ben,’ again commanded the voice. ‘Doon, Badrona! Peace, Grimalkin!’ The command was addressed to a number of monstrous black cats, which had been speeding round the walls of the cot like mad things, to the music of the unearthly crooning song which I had heard from within.
I stepped across the threshold and found a red peat fire upon the hearth and a black pot hanging over it. I looked about for the person who had addressed me. At first I could see him nowhere. But as my eyes grew accustomed to the light I saw the queerest being—the sight of whom made my heart grow cold and my hand steal to the little pocket Bible, bound in two halves, that was in my inner pocket.
A small square object sat huddled up at the far side of the fire. Upon its head there was a turban, like those the travellers into the lands of the False Prophet tell us of. But this turban was of black bull hide, and the beast's dull eyes looked out underneath with a hellish suggestion. The figure was squat like a toad, and sitting thus sunk down upon itself, it seemed to be wholly destitute of feet and legs. But a great pair of hairy arms lay out upon the hearth and sometimes clawed together the fiery red peats, as though they had just been casten and were being fitted for drying upon the moss.
‘Come awa' ben. Ye are welcome, honest stranger,’ again said the thing of the uncanny look, ‘I am nane bonny, truth to tell, but I'm nocht to my mither. It's a braw thing that ye are no' to meet wi' her the nicht. She has gane ower by to gather the Black Herb by the licht o' the aval moon. When the moon faas ower on her back like a sheep that canna rise, then is the time to gather the bonny Wolfs Bane, the Deil's Bit, wi' the berries by the water side that nane kens whaur to seek, an' the Mandrake that cries like a murdered bairn when ye pu' it frae the moss. See ye here, there's three dead bairns aneath that hearthstane. Gin ye like I will let ye see the banes. She didna pit me there, for the deil's wife has aye a warm side to the deil's bairn. Sit ye doon and bide a wee. It's braw an' heartsome to see a face at Willie's Shiel in the howe o' the Eglin.’
After the first horrid surprise of coming in upon such a place, I saw that the thing after all was human—an idiot or natural as I judged, with a monstrous twisted body and strange elricht voice like the crying of the night-wind in a keyhole. But I thought it best to sit down on a seat, even as he bade me, and so I drew a creepie stool carelessly nearer to me with one hand.
‘Na, dinna sit on that—that's a stool that naebody can sit on but my mither.’
And when I looked at the creepie in the red firelight, for it felt strange to my hand, lo! it was formed of three skulls set close together, and the legs of it were of men's leg bones.
Then it flashed to my mind that I had chanced on the house of Corp-licht Kate, the witch wife of the Star, who for many years dwelt alone on the flowe of the Eglin, with only her idiot son with her for company.
‘Na,’ said the object, ‘nane can sit on that creepie but the minnie o' me—Corp-licht Kate o' the Star. It's weel for me, an' it's weel for you, that my minnie's no' here the nicht. But sit ye down and tak' your rest.’
I arose to flee, but the monstrous figure by the red fire waved me down. And I declare that as I looked at him, he seemed to swell and glow with a kind of brightness like the moon through mist. He waved his arms abroad, and immediately about me there began the most affrighting turmoil. Black forms that had been crouching in the corners came out and began to circle round us, as it appeared by some devilish cantrip, skimming round the house breast-high, without ever touching the floor or the walls. They seemed like an army of cats, black and unearthly, all flying in mid air, screeching and caterwauling as at a witch's festival. I began to wonder if the foul, human-headed, toad-like thing that squatted by the fire were indeed the black master of witches himself, to whom, for my sins, I had been delivered in the flesh before my time.
But with a wave of his hand the idiot stilled the turmoil, and the flitting demons came to the ground in the shape of a dozen or so of cats, black and horrid, with arched tails and fiery eyes—as wild to look at as though they had wandered in from the moor. These retreated into the dark corners of the room, whence we could hear them purring and spitting, and see their fiery eyes set on us in a circle out of the gloom, which was dense as night everywhere, save only immediately about the fire.
‘I am nae deil, though ye think it, and maist folk says it,’ said the idiot, fixing his eyes on me. ‘Some says the daddie o' me was the deil, and some says Mardrochat. I kenna. There's no' muckle to choose between them. Ye can ask my mither gin ye like. I never speered her mysel'. Ye'll hae a sup o' my parritch. They are guid parritch—no' like my mither's parritch. I wad advise ye to hae nocht to do wi' my mither's parritch. Heard ye ever o' the Hefter o' the Star?’
I told him no, and sat down to see what might happen in this strange abode so near to the two places where dwelled those whom I loved best—the Bower of the Star and the Cave of Macaterick. But I loosened my sword and felt that the grip of my pistols came easy to my hand.
‘Be na feared o' puir Gash Gibbie o' the Star Sheiling,’ cried the object, noticing the action; ‘he's as honest as he is ugly. But keep wid o' the mither o' him, gin ye wad scape the chiding of the channering worm.’
The natural seemed to read the fears of my heart before I knew them myself.
‘Na, ye'll no' dee like the Hefter o' the Star. He was an ill loon, him; he wadna let my mither be, when he cam to heft hoggs in the mid o' the year. He spied on us as he sat on a hill-tap to watch that his sheep didna break dykes. But ken ye what my mither did? She gaed oot to him wi' a wee drap kail broth. Tak' ye nane o' my mither's kail broth. They are no' canny. But the hefter, silly body, took mair o' them than he was the better o'. He took them doon in a bit hollow to be oot o' the wind, and when they fand him, he had manned it to crawl back to his watcher's hill-tap. But there the silly, feckless loon died like a trout on the bank. He didna like my mither's broth. Na, they didna gree weel wi' him!’
And Gash Gibbie went on yammering and grumbling, while I sat and gazed dumbfounded at him, and at the ugly grimalkins in the dark corners, which stared at me with shining eyes, till I wished myself well out of it all.
‘An' ken ye what my mither said when the next hefter cam to see after his sheep on the hill?’
I shook my head.
‘She said, 'Watna grand ploy it wad be gin this yin were to die as weel!' That was what my mither said.’
‘And did he die?’ I asked.
Gash Gibbie moved his shoulders, and made a kind of nichering laugh to himself, like a young horse whinnying for its corn.
‘Na, he was ower cunning for my minnie, him. He wadna bide here, and when my minnie gaed to him with the guid kail broo and the braxy sooming amang it, says the second hefter, 'I'm no' that hungry the day, mistress; I'll gie the hoodie craws a drap drink o't!'
‘And so he did, and as fast as the craws got twa fills o' their nebs, they keeled ower on their backs, drew in their taes three times, cried kraigh, and tumbled heels up, as stiff as Methusala! Richt curious, was it na? She is a wonnerfu' woman, my mither!’
The thunder clouds which had been forming all through the heat of the afternoon, began to roar far away by Loch Doon, and as the place and the talk did not conduce to pleasant thoughts, I rose to go.
‘What's your hurry?’ cried Gash Gibbie, swinging himself round to my side of the fire, and lifting himself on his hands like a man that has no feet. ‘My minnie will no' be here till the mornin', and then we'll hae company belike. For she's gane to warn Mardrochat to send the sodgers to the twa run-awa' lassies up at the bit bouroch on the Meaull o' Garryhorn.’
‘To bring the soldiers?’ I said, for the words made me suddenly afraid.
‘Aye,’ said the natural, looking cunningly at me, ‘an' Gash Gibbie wad hae warned the bits o' lassies. But he's ower gruesome a tyke to be welcome guest in lady's bower. But Gibbie wishes the lassies no harm. They are clever, well-busked hizzies.’
‘I wonder if there are any more wanderers in hiding hereabouts,’ said I, thinking in my transparent guile to find out whether the Cove Macaterick were also known.
‘Na, na, nane nearer than the Caldons in the Howe o' Trool. There's some o' Peden's folk there that my mither has put her spite on—but nane nearer.’
The thunder and lightning was just coming on, as I passed the ring of cats in the outer darkness of the hut, and looked out. ‘Good night to ye, Gibbie,’ said I, ‘and thank ye kindly for your crack and the warming I hae gotten before the fire!’
‘Guid-e'en to yoursel', bonny laddie, an' a guid journey to ye. It's gaun to be a coorse nicht, and Gibbie maun gang awa' ower the heather to see gin his bonny mither doesna' miss the road hame!’
MARDROCHAT THE SPY
Then even as upon the hillside I watched and waited, I saw one come out and go round about the bower. It was a figure in woman's garments. I knew the form at the first sight. It was Kate McGhie of the Balmaghie. I had found our lost maids. So I gave a whistle that she knew with my bird call, such as every lad of the heather carried, from old Sandy Peden to young James Renwick. At the first sound of it, she started as though she had been stung. At the second peep and whinny she came a little way on tiptoe. So I whistled with a curious turn at the end, as Wat, my cousin, was wont to do. Whereupon she came a little further, and I could see her eyes looking about eagerly.
Then I stood up and came running down the side of the gairy till she saw me. She gave a little cry and put her hands to her heart, for I think she had not expected to see me, but some other—Wat of Lochinvar, as I guess. But for all that she held out her hands as if she were mightily glad to see me.
‘Ye canna send us back now!’ she cried out, before even I came near to her.
‘Ye deserve to get soundly payed for this misdemeanour,’ I answered. ‘Did ye ever think of the sore hearts ye left behind ye?’
‘Oh, my father,’ said Kate lightly, ‘he would just read his book, bless King Chairlie, walk the avenue, and say 'Kate, Kate—deil's in the lassie! The daft hizzie has tane the hill again!'‘
‘But will not he be angry?’
‘Angry, Roger McGhie? Na, na; I bade Mally Lintwhite make him potted-head, and gie him duck aff the pond to his supper, stuffed with mushrooms; and atween that and his claret wine he will thrive brawly.’
Then Kate McGhie seemed suddenly to remember something, and we went down the hillside among the stones.
‘Bide ye there!’ she commanded, halting me with her hand as John Graham halts a squadron. And I did as I was bidden; for in those days Kate had most imperious ways with her.
She stole down quietly, stooped her head to raise the flap which made a curtain door for the bower, and went within. I watched with all my eyes, for I was eager to see once more Maisie Lennox, my dear sometime comrade and gossip. In a little she came forth, but what a leap my heart gave when I saw how pale she looked. Her hand and arm were bandaged, and she leaned lightly on Kate's shoulder.
Do you wonder that my desire went out to her greatly, and that all in a moment I sprang down the rickle of stones as if they had been a made road?
‘Maisie, Maisie, wha has done this to ye, my lassie?’ I cried, or something like that (for I do not mind the words very well). And with that she fell to the greeting—the lass that never grat whatever was wrong, so that I was fair beside myself to see her. And Kate McGhie pushed me forward by the shoulder, and made signs frowningly, which I could not understand. I thought she meant that I was to go away till Maisie had somewhat recovered herself.
Very obediently I made to do so, and was for stealing away up the hill again, when Kate stamped her foot and said suddenly, ‘If ye daur!’ So I abode where I was, till it seemed to me that Maisie was about to fall, being yet weak. So I went to hold her up, and as soon as I did so, Kate McGhie slipped out of sight. Now, I think she did this of intention, for when she convoyed me a little down the hill, when I went in the evening, she rallied me very sorely.
‘Man William Gordon,’ she said; ‘I e'en thocht I wad hae to pit your airms aboot her, and tell ye what to say. Ye maun be a queer make o' men up about the Glenkens. I thank a merciful Providence that we have another kind o' them about the headend o' Balmaghie!’
But when she left us I needed no instruction. With the best will in the world I fell to comforting Maisie; and though I put not down the matter of our discourse (which concerned only ourselves), I can vouch for it that speedily we were at one. And for a long season I sat on the grey bowder stones of the gairy and made much of her in another fashion than that of a comrade.
Then after this our first pleasuring was by-past, she told me how that Kate and she had come away to seek for her father, because of the report that had come of his danger and illness; but that an accident had befallen them upon the way, and they had failed of their errand. What the accident was she would not tell me, saying that Kate McGhie would be fond enough to give me the story. Then they had built this bower by the burnside, where ever since they had remained safe and unmolested.
I asked how they got their provender.
‘O,’ she said, ‘Hughie Kerr brings it over the hill from the howe of the Kells. We have had no want of good meal.’
Then when we had talked and I had told her of her father and his welfare, I bethought me to urge her to bide where she was, for that night at all events, saying that perhaps in the morning she might come over to see him. For I desired, seeing that the place was no longer safe (if, indeed, the persecutors did know where Anton was hid, which I believed not), to have him shifted as soon as he could bear the journey. But yet I was loath to do it, for there is no hold in all the high hill-lands so commodious as Cove Macaterick above the loch of that name.
When Kate McGhie came again to us, methought she looked more approvingly upon me than before—but indulgently, as one that passes an indifferent piece of work, which yet she herself could better have performed.
As soon as she came near, I began to ask her of Maisie's accident and the cause of it.
‘Has she not told you herself? I am not going to heat cauld porridge for you twa to sup,’ she said, in the merry way which never deserted her. For she was ever the most spirity wench in the world, and though a laird's daughter, it pleased her often to speak in the country fashion.
But when I had advertised her that Maisie had not said a word about the matter, but on the contrary had referred me to herself, Kate McGhie made a pretty mouth and gave a little whistle.
‘After all, then,’ she said, ‘we are not round the corner yet!’
Then she began to tell me of their journeying in the night after Pherson, the serving-man, had left them.
‘We cam' over the heather licht foot as hares,’ said Kate McGhie. ‘The stars were bonny above. A late moon was rising over the taps by Balmaclellan, and the thocht that I was out on the heather hills set a canty fire in my breast.
‘A' gaed richt till we cam' to the new brig across the Water o' Dee, that was biggit a year or twa syne wi' the collections in the kirks. When we cam' to it we were liltin' blythe and careless at a sang, when oot o' the dark o' the far side there steps a muckle cankersome lookin' man in a big cloak, an' stan's richt in the midst o' the road!
‘'Whaur gang ye sae late at nicht by this road withoot the leave o' Mardrochat?' says he.
‘'Sang,' says I. 'Wha's midden's this? And wha's Mardrochat that his barn-door cock craws sae croose on til't?'
‘For,’ said Kate McGhie, looking at me, ‘as ye ken, I hadna been learned at the Balmaghie to thole snash frae onybody.’
At which I smiled, for well I knew Kate's reputation with her tongue.
'This is Mardrochat's road, and by the King's command his business is to question all comers. But it's not ill-gi'en words that he wad use wi' twa sic bonny lassies!' says the loon in the cloak.
'Dear sirs,' says I, 'fifty puddin's on a plate! Mardrochat maun be a braw lad. Is he the King's hangman? It's an honourable and well-considered office nowadays, they tell me.'
'Satisfy me whar ye are gaun sae late,' says the ill-contriving chiel, 'an' maybes I'll convoy ye a bit o' the road. It shall never be said that Mardrochat left twa weel-faured lassies them-lane in the howe o' the nicht!'
'Heighty-teighty,' I telled the man, 'oor coo's come hame, an' her tail's ahint her! Stand oot o' the road an' let decent folk to their beds!'
'There's nae beds bena the heather that gate!' said the man. And faith, there he was in the right of it. There were no beds except the wanderers' beds in the moss-hags that road for twenty lang Scots miles.
And all this time we were standing on the brig close to one another.
'Let us gang by,' said I again.
'Na,' said the long loon that had called himself Mardrochat, and wha I kenned for an ill-set informer that made his siller by carrying tales to Clavers and Lag, 'ye pass na this road. Ye maun e'en turn and come wi' me!'
And I think he would have come forward to put his hand upon us. But I made to get past him at one side, crying to Maisie to try the other. For I thought that the two of us were surely a match for any black thief of the kind to be found in the Glenkens.
But as I was running by, he grippit me with one hand and drew his windlestrae of a sword wi' the other—drew it on a pair o' lassies, mind ye. Then what think ye? Your bit lassie there, Missie Mim, she flew on him like a wullcat and gripped the blade atween her fingers till she drew it oot o' his hand. Then she took it across her knee and garred it play snap like a rotten branch. Syne ower it gaed intil the water. And that was the way she got the cut on her hand, poor thing.’
Then I gave a great shout and clasped Maisie in my arms, yet not harshly, lest she should be weak. I was glad to hear this testimony to her bravery.
‘That is of a better fashion,’ said Kate, like one who has store of experience. Then she went on with her story, for she had yet more to tell. ‘But the loon was dour for a' the want o' his sword, and we micht no' hae mastered him but that he tried to trip us and so got tripped himself. He fell so that the head o' him took the wa' and fair dang him stupid. So we e'en gied him a bit hoise an' ower he gaed intil the water.’
‘Mercy on us,’ I cried, ‘ye didna droon the man?’
‘Droon him,’ said Kate, ‘deil a fear! Yon chiel is made for the tow. He'll droon nane. The last we saw o' him, he was sitting on his hurdies in the shallows, up to his neck in the water, trying what banes war hale after his stramash.
‘So,’ continued Kate, ‘we gaed our roads in peace, and the chiel sat still in the water, thrawin' his heid aboot and aboot like a turnspit, as lang as we could see him.’
Even thus Kate McGhie told her tale, making my lass dearer to me with every word. Of Mardrochat the informer, who had made bold to meddle with them, I had heard many times. He had been a Covenanter of zeal and forwardness till, at a meeting of the Societies, his double-faced guile had been laid bare. Ever since which day in the wilds of Friarminion, he had been a cunning, spying fox, upon the track of the hill-folk. But I knew how dangerous the man could be, and liked it ill enough that the maids should have crossed him so early on their pilgrimage. I doubted not that it was from him that the original information had come, which, being carried to the enemy by Birsay and overheard by me in the house of Balmaghie, had sent us all hiving to the mountains.
THE BOWER OF THE STAR
Day by day I tended him as gently as I could, till in the cave our provisions were well-nigh spent. Then, one grey morning I took my pistol to go out on the hillside to see if I could shoot aught to eat. But because of my nervousness, or other cause, I could at that time do nothing. Indeed, not so much as a whaup came near me on that great, wide, dappled hill.
I saw a hill fox rise and run. He was a fine beast and very red, and held his tail nobly behind him like a flag. But, hardly beset as we were, we could with difficulty have eaten fox, even had I been able to shoot him, which I was not.
The day passed slowly, the night came, and it went sore to my heart that I was able to do so little for the friend of one I loved. I saw that he would have mended readily enough, if he had received the right nutriment, which, alas! it seemed far out of my power to obtain. Yet in the morning, when I went to the mouth of the cave, lo! there, immediately to the right of me, on a bare place, were two great whaup eggs, broad-buttocked and splashed with black. I never was gladder to see food. It was late for the whaups to be breeding; and, indeed, they had mostly left the moorland by that time. But, nevertheless, it was manifest that Providence had bidden some bird, perhaps disappointed of an earlier brood or late mated, to come and lay the eggs before our door.
I bade Anton take the eggs by the ancient method of sucking—which he made shift to do, and was very greatly strengthened thereby. So every morning as long as we remained there, the wild bird laid an egg in the morning, which made the Covenanter's breakfast. This is but one of the daily marvels from the Lord which attended our progress. For whensoever those that have been through the perilous time come together, they recount these things to one another, and each has his like tale of preservation and protection to tell.
But that minds me of a strange thing. Once during the little while when I companied with the Compellers, it was my hap to meet with clattering John Crichton, that rank persecutor. And what was my surprise to hear that all his talk ran upon certain providential dreams he had had in the night time, by which there was revealed to him the hiding place of many of the ‘fanatics.’ Aye, and even the very place pointed out to him in the dream where it would be most convenient to compass their capturing. And this in due time he brought about, or said he did. But, for all that, I do not think that the company he was among set great store by his truthfulness. For after each wondrous story of adventure and second-sight they would roar with laughter, and say: ‘Well done, Crichton! Out with another one!’
After a day or two of this lack of food, it came suddenly to me what a dumbhead I was, to bide with an empty belly in a place where at least there must be plenty of fish near at hand. So I rose early from off my bed of heather tops, and betook me down to the river edge. It is nothing but a burn which they call the Eglin Lane, a long, bare water, slow and peaty, but with some trout of size in it. Also from the broads of Loch Macaterick, there came another burn with clearer sparkling water and much sand in the pools. There were trout in both, as one might see by stealing up to the edge of the brow and looking over quickly. But owing to the drought, there was water only in the pools of Eglin, and often but the smallest trickle beneath the stones.
I had a beauty out in a few moments; for so eager was I that I leaped into the burn just as I was, without so much as waiting to take off any of my garments. So in the pool there was a-rushing and a-chasing till I had him out on the grass, his speckled sides glinting bonny on the heather as he tossed himself briskly from side to side. I followed the burn down to the fork of the water that flows from Loch Macaterick, and fished all the pools in this manner. By that time I had enough for three meals at the least; or perhaps, considering the poor state of our appetites, for more than that. I put those we should not want that day into a pretty little fish-pond, which makes a kind of backwater on one of the burns springing down from the side of the Rig of the Star. And this was the beginning of the fish-pond which continued to supply us with food all the time we abode there.
While I was in the river bottom, it chanced that I looked up the great smooth slopes of the opposite hill, which is one of the range of Kells.
There is a little shaggy clump of trees on the bare side of it, and I could have sworn that among the trees I saw people stirring.
I could only think that the people there were wanderers like ourselves, or else spies sent to keep an eye on this wide, wild valley between the Garryhorn hill and the Spear of the Merrick.
So I came back to the cave no little dashed in spirit, in spite of my great successes with the trout. I said nothing about what I had seen to Auld Anton, for he was both weak and feverish. And though certainly mending, he was not yet able to move out into the sunshine and lie among the bracken, a thing which would have done him much good on these still warm days.
But I made a fire with heather and the roots of ancient trees, which in that strange wild desert stick out of the peat at every step. There I roasted the trout, of which Anton Lennox ate heartily. I think they had more relish to a sick man's palate than whaup eggs, even though these came to him as it were in a miraculous manner; while I had guddled the trout with my boots and breeks on.
When the meal was over, I bethought me that I should make an excuse, and steal away over to the side of the Meaull, to see what it might be that was stirring on that lonely brae-face. For save the scraggy scrunts of the rowan trees and birks that surround the cave, there was not a tree within sight, till the woods at the upper end of Loch Doon began to take the sun.
I carefully charged my pistols and told Anton how I proposed to go out to shoot mountain hares or other victual that I could see.
He did not say a word to bid me stay, but only advised me to keep very close to the cave. Because, once off the bosky face of the cliff, there was no saying what hidden eyes might spy me out. For Lag, he said, was certainly lying in hold at Garryhorn at that time, and Claverhouse himself was on the borders of the country. Concerning this last I knew better than he, and was much desirous that we could get Anton well enough to move further out of the reach of his formidable foes.
I started just when the heated haze of the afternoon was clearing with the first early-falling chill of even. The hills were casting shadows upon each other towards the Dungeon and Loch Enoch, where, in the wildest and most rugged country, some of the folk of the wilderness were in hiding.
As I went I heard the grey crow croak and the muckle corbie cry ‘Glonk,’ somewhere over by the Slock of the Hooden. They had got a lamb to themselves or a dead sheep belike. But to me it sounded like the gloating of the dragoons over some captured company of the poor wandering Presbyters. It seemed a strange thing for me, when I came to think of it, that I, the son of the Laird of Earlstoun, my mother, that had long time been the lady thereof, and my brother Sandy, that was now Earlstoun himself, should all be skipping and hiding like thieves, with the dragoons at our tail. Now this thought came not often to us, who were born during the low estate of the Scottish kirk. But when it did come, the thought was even more bitter to us, because we had no sustaining memories of her former high estate, nor remembered what God's kirk had been in Scotland from the year 1638 down to the weary coming of Charles Stuart and the down-sitting of the Drunken Parliament in the Black Year of Sixty.
But for all that I thought on these things as I went. Right carefully I kept the cover of every heather bush, peat hag, muckle grey granite stone, and waving clump of bracken. So that in no long space, by making a wide circuit, I came to look down upon the little clump of trees, where I had seen the figures moving, as I guddled the trout for our dinner in the reaches of the Eglin Lane.
Now, however, there seemed to be a great quietness all about the place, and the scanty trees did not so much as wave a branch in the still air of the afternoon.
Yet I saw, as it had been the waft of a jaypiet's wing among them, when I came over the steep rocks of the Hooden's Slock, and went to ford the Gala Lane—which like the other water was, by the action of the long dry year, sunken to no more than a chain of pools. But as I circled about and came behind the trees, there was, as I say, a great quiet. My heart went up and down like a man's hand at the flail in a barn. Yet for my unquiet, there was no great apparent reason. It might be, indeed, that the enemies had laid a snare for me, and that I was already as good as setting out for the Grassmarket, with the ladder and the rope before me, and the lad with the piebald coat at my tail. And this was a sore thought to me, for we Gordons are not of a race that take hanging lightly. We never had more religion than we could carry for comfort. Yet we always got our paiks for what little we had, on which side soever we might be. It is a strange thing that we should always have managed to come out undermost whichever party was on top, and of this I cannot tell the reason. On the other hand, the Kennedies trimmed their sails to the breeze as it blew, and were ever on the wave's crest. But then they were Ayrshiremen. And Ayr, it is well kenned, aye beats Galloway—that is, till it comes to the deadly bellyful of fighting.
Thus I communed with myself, ever drawing nearer to the clump of trees on the side of the Meaull, and murmuring good Protestant prayers, as if they had been no better than Mary's beads all the time.
As I came to the little gairy above the trees, I looked down, and from the verge of it I saw the strangest contrivance. It was a hut beside a tiny runlet of water—a kind of bower with the sides made of bog-oak stobs taken from the edges of the strands. The roof was daintily theeked with green rushes and withes, bound about with heather. Heather also was mingled with the thatching rushes, so that from a little distance the structure seemed to be part of the heath. I lay and watched to see what curious birds had made such a bower on the Star in the dark days. For such dainty carefulness was not the wont of us chiels of the Covenant, and I could not think that any of the rough-riders after us would so have spent their time. An inn yard, a pint stoup, and a well-cockered doxie were more to their liking, than plaiting the bonny heather into a puppet's house upon the hillside.
IN COVE MACATERICK
Wat and I took our way immediately towards those wilds where, as we had been advised, Auld Anton Lennox was hidden. He was (so we were informed) stricken with great sickness and needed our ministrations. But in the wild country into which we were going was no provision for the up-putting of young and delicate maids, specially such as were accustomed to the luxuries of the house of Balmaghie.
The days, however, were fine and dry, and a fanning wind from the north blew in our faces as we went. It was near to the road-end of the Duchrae, up which I had so often helped the cars (or sledges of wood with birch twigs for wheels) to drag the hay crop, that we met Roderick MacPherson, a Highland man-servant of the Laird of Balmaghie, riding one pony and leading other two. We knew them at once as those which for common were ridden by Kate McGhie and Maisie Lennox.
‘Hey, where away, Roderick?’ cried Wat, as soon as he set eyes on the cavalcade.
The fellow looked through his lowering thatch of eyebrows and grunted, but whether with stupidity or cunning it had been hard to say.
‘Speak!’ said Wat, threateningly; ‘you can understand well enough, when they cry from the kitchen door that it is porridge time.’
‘The leddies was tak' a ride,’ MacPherson answered, with a cock in his eye that angered Wat, whose temper, indeed, in these days was not of the most enduring.
‘Where did you leave them?’ cried he of Lochinvar.
‘It was on a muir, no far frae a burnside; I was fair forget where!’ said Roderick, with a look of the most dense stupidity.
Then I saw the fellow had been commanded not to tell, so I said to Wat,
‘Come on, Wat. Kate has ordered him not to tell us.’
‘This is a bonny like thing,’ said Wat, angrily, ‘that I canna truss him up and make him tell, only because I am riding with the hill-folk. Oh, that I were a King's man of any sort for half an hour.’
For, indeed, it is the glory of the field-folk, who have been blamed for many extremes and wild opinions, that though tortured and tormented themselves by the King's party, they used not torture upon their enemies—as in later times even the Whigs did, when after the Eighty-eight it came to be their time to govern.
So we permitted the Highland tyke to go on his way. There is no need to go into the place and manner of our journeyings, in such a pleasant and well-kenned country as the strath of the Kells. But, suffice it to say, after a time we betook ourselves to the broad of the moors, and so held directly for the fastnesses of the central hills, where the poor hunted folk kept sanctuary.
We kept wide of the rough and tumbled country about the lochs of Neldricken and Enoch; because, to our cost and detriment, we knew that place was already much frequented by the ill-contriving gipsy people thereabouts—rascals who thought no more of taking the life of a godly person, than of killing one of the long-woolled mountain sheep which are the staple of these parts. So there was no need to run into more danger. We were in plenty already without that.
After a long while we found ourselves under the front of the Dungeon Hill, which is the wildest and most precipitous in all that country. They say that when it thunders there, all the lightnings of heaven join together to play upon the rocks of the Dungeon. And, indeed, it looks like it; for most of the rocks there are rent and shattered, as though a giant had broken them and thrown them about in his play.
Beneath this wild and rocky place we kept our way, till, across the rounded head of the Hill of the Star, we caught a glimpse of the dim country of hag and heather that lay beyond.
Then we held up the brae that is called the Gadlach, where is the best road over the burn of Palscaig, and so up into the great wide valley through which runs the Eglin Lane.
Wat and I had our precise information as to the cave in which lay the Covenanter, Anton Lennox. So that, guiding ourselves by our marks, we held a straight course for the corner of the Back Hill of the Star in which the hiding place was.
I give no nearer direction to the famous Cove Macaterick for the plainest reasons, though it is there to this day, and the herds ken it well. But who knows how soon the times may grow troubleous again, and the Cove reassert its ancient safety. But all that I will say is, that if you want to find Cove Macaterick, William Howatson, the herd of the Merrick, or douce, John Macmillan that dwells at Bongill in the Howe of Trool, can take you there—that is, if your legs be able to carry you, and you can prove yourself neither outlaw nor King's soldier. And this word also, I say, that in the process of your long journeying you will find out this, that though any bairn may write a history book, it takes a man to herd the Merrick.
So in all good time we came to the place. It is half-way up a clint of high rocks overlooking Loch Macaterick, and the hillside is bosky all about with bushes, both birk and self-sown mountain ash. The mouth of the cavern is quite hidden in the summer by the leaves, and in the winter by the mat of interlacing branches and ferns. Above, there is a diamond-shaped rock, which ever threatens to come down and block the entrance to the cave. Which indeed it is bound to do some day.
Wat and I put aside the tangle and crawled within the black mouth of the cavern one at a time, till we came to a wider part, for the whole place is narrow and constricted. And there, on a pallet bed, very pale and far through, we found Auld Anton—who, when he saw us, turned his head and raised his hand by the wrist in greeting. His lips moved, but what he said we could not tell. So I crept back and made shift to get him a draught of water from a well upon the hillside, which flowed near by the mouth of the cave. The spring water somewhat revived him, and he sat up, leaning heavily against me as he did so.
Nevertheless, it was some time before he could speak. Wat and I looked at one another, and as we saw the condition of things in the cave, it became very evident to us that the lassies Kate and Maisie had either wandered from the road, or had been detained in some manner that was unknown to us. So Wat, being ever for instant action, proposed that he should go off and seek the lassies, and that I should bide and do my best to succour Auld Anton in his extremity.
To this I consented, and Wat instantly took his way with his sword, his pistols, and his gaily set bonnet—walking with that carriage which had been little else than a swagger in the old days, but which now was no more than the air of well-set distinction which marks the man of ancient family and life-long training in arms.
So I was left alone with the father of the lassie I loved. I have said it. There is no use of denying it any longer. Indeed, the times were not such as to encourage much dallying with love's dainty misunderstandings. We were among days too dark for that. But I owned as I sat there, with her father's head on my lap, that it was for Maisie Lennox's sake, and not altogether for the sake of human kindness, that I was left here in the wilderness to nurse Anton Lennox of the Duchrae.
As soon as he could speak, Anton began to tell me of his illness.
‘I fell,’ he said, ‘from my pride of strength in one hour. The spirit of the Lord departed from me, and I became even as the mown grass, that today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven.’
He lay back and breathed quickly for a moment. I entreated him not to speak, but he put my words aside impatiently with his hand.
‘Thus it was. I was fleeing with a few of the people from before the persecutors, and as we came over the hip of the Meaull of Garryhorn, the horsemen rode hotly behind us. Then suddenly there came upon me a dwam and a turning in my head, so that I cried to them to run on and leave me to the pursuers. But to this the godly lads would in no wise consent. 'We will carry you,' they said, 'and put you in some hole in the moss and cover you with heather.' So they designed, but the enemy being very close upon us, they got me no further than a little peat brow at the lane-side down there. They laid me on a shelf where the bank came over me. Then I heard our people scattering and running in different directions, in order that they might draw the enemy away from me. So I lay still and waited for them to come and take me, if so it should be the will of the Lord. And over me I heard the horses of the soldiers plunging. One beast, as it gathered way for the spring over the burn, sent its hoof down through the black peat and the stead of its hoof was on my bonnet's brim. Yet, according to the mercies of the Lord, me it harmed not. But the soldier fell off and hurt his head in his steel cap upon the further bank, whereat he swore—which was a manifest judgment upon him, to tangle him yet deeper in the wrath of God.’
So here I abode in the cave with Anton, and we spoke of many things, but specially of the lassie that was near to my heart and the pearl of his soul. He told me sweet simple things of her childhood that warmed me like well-matured wine. As how that there was a day when, her mother being alive, Maisie came in and said, ‘When I am a great girl and have bairns of my own, I shall let them stay all day in the gardens where the grosarts are, and never say, 'You shall not touch!’
This Anton thought to be a thing wondrously sound and orthodox, and he saw in the child's word the stumbling stone of our mother Eve.
A CAVALIER'S WOOING
John Graham assured himself that none of the servants were in the room, and then he said:
‘I have sure informations from one Birsay Smith, a cobbler, by which I have my hand as good as upon the throat of that arch-fanatic, Anthony Lennox of the Duchrae, and also upon Sandy Gordon of Earlstoun, his younger brother William, Maclellan of Barscobe, and some others. It will be a great taking, for there is a long price on every head of them.’
‘Think you, John,’ said Balmaghie, shrewdly, ‘that you will add Earlstoun and Barscobe to your new lands of Freuch?’
‘Nay,’ said Clavers, ‘that is past hoping. They will give them to their English colonels, Oglethorpe and the like. Aye, even though, at my own request, I had the promise from the Council of the estates of any that I should find cause of forfeiture against, a thing which is only my due. But as by this time you may know, a plain soldier hath small chance among the wiles of the courtiers.’
‘I question, John, if thou hadst all Galloway and Nidsdale to boot, thou wouldst be happy, even with the fairest maid therein, for one short week. Thou wouldst be longing to have Boscobel out, saddled and bridled, and be off to the Whig-hunting with a 'Ho-Tally-Ho!' For that is thy way, John!’
Claverhouse laughed a little stern laugh like a man that is forced to laugh at himself, yet is somedeal proud of what he hears.
‘It is true,’ he said. ‘There is no hunting like this hunting of men, which the King's service sees in these days. It makes it worth living to keep the crown of the moorland with one's company of dragoons, like a man hefting lambs on a sheep farm; and know that no den, no knowe, no moss, no hill has been left unsearched for the King's rebels.’
‘And how speeds the wooing, John?’ I heard Balmaghie say after a little pause, and the opening of another bottle.
For I thought it no shame to listen, since the lives of all that were dear to me, as well as my own, were in this man's power. And, besides, I knew very well that Kate McGhie had put me in this place, that I might gain good intelligence of the intentions of the great captain of the man-hunters.
Clavers sat awhile silent. He looked long and scrupulously at his fine white hand and fingered the lace ruffle upon his sleeve.
‘It was of that mainly that I came to speak to you, Roger. Truth to tell, it does not prosper to my mind.’
‘Hath the fair Jean proved unkind?’ said Roger McGhie, looking over at Claverhouse, with a quiet smile in his eye.
John Graham leaned back in his chair with a quick amused look and threw back his clustering love locks.
‘No,’ he said; ‘there is, I think, little fear of that.’
‘What then is the difficulty—her mother?’
‘Aye,’ said Claverhouse, ‘that is more like it. Yet though the Lady Dundonald drills me and flytes me and preaches at me, I care not so much. For like the hardships of life, that will come to an end. Nevertheless, I own that at times I am tempted to take the lady at my saddle-bow, and ride out from Paisley to return no more.’
‘You will not do that, John!’ said Balmaghie quietly, with a certain light of irony in his eye.
Claverhouse looked up quickly.
‘How so, Balmaghie?’ he said, and I saw through my little slant wicket the pride grow in his eye.
‘The forty thousand marks, John.’
Claverhouse struck his hand on the table.
‘Thank you——’ he said coldly, and then for a moment was silent.
‘There is no man that dare say that to me but yourself, Roger McGhie,’ he added.
‘No,’ said the Laird of Balmaghie, sipping at his canary, ‘and that is why you rode over to see me tonight, John—a silly old man in a dull house, instead of guzzling at Kirkcudbright with Winram and the burgesses and bailies thereof. You are a four-square, truth-telling man, and yet hear little of it, save at the house of Balmaghie.’
Claverhouse still said nothing, but stared at the table, from which the cloth had been removed.
The elder man reached over and put his hand on the sleeve of the younger.
‘Why, John,’ he said softly, ‘pluck up heart and do nothing hastily—as I know thou wilt not. Forty thousand marks is not to be despised. It will help thee mightily with Freuch and Dudhope. It is worth having thy ears soundly boxed once or twice for a persecutor, by a covenanting mother-in-law.’
‘But that is not the worst of it, Roger,’ said Claverhouse, who had gotten over his pique; ‘my enemies lay it against me to York and the King, that I frequent a suspected and disloyal house. They will put me down as they put down Aberdeen——’
At this moment I felt a hand upon my arm. It was that of Kate McGhie. She drew me out of the closet where Alisoun had bestowed me, intending, as she intimated, to come cosily in beside me when she had washed the dishes. But Kate took me by the hand, and together we passed out into the cool night. Wat met us by the outer gate. He was standing in the shadow. There was then no time for me to tell Kate what I had heard Claverhouse reveal to the laird of his intentions regarding Anton Lennox and my brother Sandy. To which there was added a further great uncertainty, lest Birsay had been able to add to his other informations an account of my mother's hiding-place and our own disguises. Nay, even though he had not already done so, there was no saying how soon this might come about.
However, as we stood conferring a moment together, there was one came running hastily from the house to the stables, carrying a lantern. Then in a little, out of the stable door came clattering the war-horse of the commander of dragoons.
William McCutcheon, the serving-man and chief groom of the stables, led Boscobel with a certain awe, as if he might actually be leading the Accuser of the Brethren, haltered and accoutred.
He had not been at the door a minute, when Claverhouse come out and went down the steps, drawing on his riding gauntlets as he came. Roger McGhie walked behind him carrying burning candles in a great silver triple candlestick. He held the light aloft in his hand while the cavalier mounted with a free, easy swing into the saddle; and, gathering the reins in his hand, turned to bid his host adieu. ‘Be a wee canny with the next Whig ye catch, for the sake of your ain bonny Whiggie, Jean Cochrane!’ cried Roger McGhie of Balmaghie, holding the cresset high above his head.
‘Deil a fear!’ laughed Clavers, gaily waving his hand. ‘Tis not in the power of love or any other folly to alter my loyalty.’
‘Pshaw!’ said the laird; ‘then, John, be assured ye ken nothing about the matter.’
But Claverhouse was already clattering across the cobble stones of the yard. We drew back into the deep shadow of the bushes and he passed us, a noble figure of a man sitting slenderly erect on his black horse Boscobel, and so riding out into the night, like a prince of darkness going forth to war.
That night, down in the little holding of Waterside, upon the broad meadows of the Dee, we held a council. My mother was for setting out forthwith to look after her son Sandy.
But I gently dissuaded her, telling her that Sandy was far better left to his own resources, than with her safety also to provide for.
‘I daresay,’ said she, a little shortly; ‘but have you thought how I am like to sleep when you are all away—when in every foot that comes by the door, I hear the messenger who comes to tell me of my sons streeked stiff in their winding sheets?’
But, after all, we managed to persuade her to bide on at the Boatcroft, where little Margaret of Glen Vernock was to stay with her for company. As for the rest of us, we had information brought us by sure hands, of the hiding-places of Anton Lennox and the rest of the wanderers.
The maids were set upon accompanying us—Maisie Lennox to see her father, and Kate McGhie because Maisie Lennox was going. But after a long controversy we also prevailed on them to abide at home and wait for our return. Yet it came to me afterwards that I saw a look pass between them, such as I had seen before, when it is in the heart of the women folk to play some trick upon the duller wits of mankind. It is as though they said, ‘After all, what gulls these men be!’
So that night I slept with Wat in the gardener's hut, and early in the morning we went down to the great house to bid the maids good-bye. But there we found only Alisoun Begbie. The nest was empty and the birds flown. Only Roger McGhie was walking up and down the beech avenue of the old house, deep in thought. He had his hands behind his back, and sometimes the corners of his mouth seemed to smile through his gloom with a curious pleasantry. Wat and I kept well out of his sight, and I could not help wondering how much, after all, he understood of our ongoings. More than any of us thought at that time, I warrant, for it was the man's humour to know much and say little.
Alisoun Begbie, who seemed not unwilling that we should stop and converse with her, told us that after Clavers had departed, Mistress Kate had gone in to her father to tell him that she was going away for a space of days.
‘Mind, ye are not to rise before your ordinary in the morning, father,’ she said; ‘I shall be gone by the dawn.’
‘Very well, Kate,’ he replied, continuing to draw off his coat and prepare for bed; ‘I shall sell the Boreland to pay the fine.’
This was all he said; and having kissed his daughter good-night, calmly and pleasantly as was his wont, he set a silken skull-cap on his crown and fell asleep. Truly a remarkable man was Roger McGhie of Balmaghie.
THE BLACK HORSE COMES TO BALMAGHIE
As Wat and I went towards the great house in the early gloaming, we became aware of a single horseman riding toward us and gaining on us from behind. At the first sound of the trampling of his horse, Wat dived at once over the turf dyke and vanished.
‘Bide you!’ he said. ‘He'll no ken you!’
A slender-like figure in a grey cavalry cloak and a plain hat without a feather, came, slowly riding alongside of me, in an attitude of the deepest thought.
I knew at a glance that it was John Graham of Claverhouse, whom all the land of the South knew as ‘the Persecutor.’
‘Are you one of Balmaghie's servants?’ he asked.
I took off my bonnet, showing as I did so my shaven poll, and answered him that I was.
No other word he uttered, though he eyed me pretty closely and uncomfortably, as if he had a shrewd thought that he had seen me before elsewhere. But the shaven head and the absence of hair on my face were a complete disguise.
For, indeed, though Maisie Lennox made little of it, the fact was that I had at the time quite a strong crop of hair upon both my chin and upper lip.
Claverhouse waved me behind him with the graceful and haughty gesture, which they say he constantly used even to the Secretary in Council, when he was hot with him in the matter of the house and lands of Dudhope.
Meekly enough I trudged behind the great commander of horse, and looked with much curiosity and some awe both upon him and on his famous steed ‘Boscobel,’ which was supposed by the more ignorant of the peasantry to be the foul fiend in his proper person.
So in this manner we came to the house. The lights were just beginning to shine, for Alisoun Begbie, the maid of the table, was just arranging the candles. At the doorway the master of the house met his guest, having been drawn from his library by the feet of the charger clattering upon the pavement of the yard.
‘Ah, John,’ he said, ‘this is right gracious of you, in the midst of your fighting and riding, to journey over to cheer an old hulk like me!’
And he reached him a hand to the saddle, which Claverhouse took without a word. But I saw a look of liking, which was almost tender, in the war-captain's eyes as I passed round by the further door into the kitchen.
Here I was roughly handled by the cook—who, of course, had not been informed of my personality, and who exercised upon me both the length of her tongue and the very considerable agility thereof.
But Alisoun Begbie, who was, as I say, principal waiting-maid, rescued me and in pity took me under her protection; though with no suspicion of my quality, but only from a maidish and natural liking for a young and unmarried man. She offered very kindly to show me all my duties, and, indeed, I had been in a sorry pass that night without her help.
So when it came to the hour of supper, it was with some show of grace that I was enabled to wait at table, and take my part in the management of the dishes thereupon. Alisoun kept me mostly in the back of her serving pantry, and gave me only the dishes which were easy to be served, looking kindly on me with her eyes all the while and shyly touching my hand when occasion served, which I thought it not politic to refuse. For all this I was mightily thankful, because I had very small desire to draw upon me the cold blue eyes of John Graham—to whom, in spite of my crop head and serving-man's attire, there might arrive a memory of the side of green Garryhorn and the interrupted fight which Wat of Lochinvar, my cousin, had fought for my sake with Cornet Peter Inglis.
The two gentlemen sat and supped their kail, in which a pullet had been boiled, with quite remarkable relish. But it was not till the wine had been uncorked and set at their elbows, that they began to have much converse.
Then they sat and gossiped together very pleasantly, like men that are easing their hearts and loosening their belts over trencher and stoup, after a hard day's darg.
It was John Graham who spoke first.
‘Have you heard,’ he said, ‘the excellent new jest concerning Anne Keith, what she did with these vaguing blasties up at Methven, when the laird was absent in London?’
‘Nay,’ replied Roger McGhie, ‘that have I not. I am not in the way at Balmaghie to hear other misdeeds than those of John Graham and his horse Boscobel, that is now filling his kyte in my stable, as his master is eke doing in hall.’
‘Well,’ said Claverhouse, ‘we shall have to give Anne the justiciar power and send her lord to the spence and the store chamber. She should have the jack and the riding breeks, and he the keys of the small ale casks. So it were better for his Majesty's service.’
‘But I thought him a good loyal man,’ said Roger McGhie.
‘One that goes as easy as an old shoe—like yourself, Roger. Not so my lady. Heard ye what our Anne did? The conventiclers came to set up a preaching in a tent on the laird's ground, and they told it to Anne. Whereupon she rose, donned her lord's buff coat and slung his basket hilt at her pretty side. And so to the woodside rode she. There were with her none but Methven's young brother, a lad like a fathom of pump water. Yet with Anne Keith to captain him, he e'en drew sword and bent pistol like a brave one. I had not thought that there was so much good stuff in David.’
Roger McGhie sipped at his wine and nodded, drawing up one eyebrow and down the other, as his habit was when he was amused—which indeed was not seldom, for he was merry within him much more often than he told any.
‘Then who but Anne was the pretty fighter,’ Clavers went on lightly, ‘with a horseman's piece on her left arm, and a drawn tuck in her right hand? Also was she not the fine general? For she kept the enemy's forces sindry, marching her servants to and fro, all armed to the teeth—to and fro all day between them, and threatening the tent in which was the preacher to the rabble. She cried to them that if they did not leave the parish of Methven speedily, it would be a bloody day for them. And that if they did not come to the kirk decently and hear the curate, she would ware her life upon teaching them how to worship God properly, for that they were an ignorant, wicked pack! A pirlicue which pleased them but little, so that some rode off that they might not be known, and some dourly remained, but were impotent for evil.
‘I never knew that Anne Keith was such a spirity lass. I would all such lasses were as sound in the faith as she.’
This was the word of Roger McGhie, uttered like a meditation. I felt sure he thought of his daughter Kate.
‘Then,’ continued John Graham, ‘after that, Anne took her warlike folk to the kirk. And lo! the poor curate was so wandered and feared, that he could make no suitable discourse that day, but only stood and bleated like a calf, till the Lady Anne said to him, 'Sir, if you can neither fight nor preach, ye had better go back to the Hielands and herd kye, for by the Lord, I, Anne Keith, can fight and preach too!'‘
‘As they do say the Laird of Methven right well knoweth,’ said Roger McGhie, in the very dry and covert way in which he said many things.
‘Ah!’ said Clavers, and smiled a little as if he also had his own thoughts. But he went on.
‘So on the very next day Anne held a court in the hall, and all the old canting wives of the parish were there. She set the Test to all their throats, and caused them to forswear conventicling at the peril of their lives—all but one old beldame that would in no wise give way, or be answerable for her children, who were well kenned and notour rebels.
‘Then Anne took from the hag her apron, that was a fine braw one with pockets, and said to her, 'This I shall retain till you have paid your son's fines. If ye cannot keep your other brats out of the dirt, at least I shall keep this one clean for you.'‘
‘Ha, very well said, Anne!’ cried Roger McGhie, clapping the table. For ‘brat’ is but the Scots word for apron, and such a brisk conceity saying was like that very spirited lady, Anne Keith.
‘But with yourself, how goes it?’ asked the Laird of Balmaghie.
Claverhouse turned a silver spoon over and over, and looked at the polish upon it thoughtfully.
‘Ill, ill, I fear. I ride night and day through all the country of Galloway, and it is like so much pudding in mud. That which you clear out before you, closes up behind. And at headquarters there is the Duke Hamilton, who desires no better than to load me to the chancellor. I have many enemies.’
‘But surely also many friends,’ said Balmaghie.
‘Not many so true as thou art, Roger,’ said Claverhouse, stretching out a white hand across the table, which his friend took for a moment.
‘And I am plagued on the one side by the Council to make the folk keep to the kirk, and on the other sore vexed with weary-winded preachers like Andrew Symson over on Creeside, who this very day writes me to say that ever since muckle Davie Dunbar of Baldoon hath broken his neck, he gets no congregation at all. And be sure the poor wretch wishes me to gather him one.’
He threw a bit of paper across the table to Balmaghie.
‘Read ye that,’ he said. ‘It is about swearing Baldoon.’
The laird looked at it all over and then began to smile.
‘This is indeed like Andrew Symson, doddering fool body that he is—aye scribing verses, and sic-like verse. Heaven forfend us!’
And he began to read.
UPON BALDOON. ‘He was no schismatick. He ne'er withdrew Himself from the house of God. He with a few,Some two or three, came constantly to pray. For such as had withdrawn themselves away. Nor did he come by fits. Foul day or fair, I being in the kirk, was sure to see him there. Had he withdrawn, 'tis like, these two or three being thus discouraged, had deserted me: So that my muse 'gainst Priscian avers, He, he alone, was my parishioners!’
‘Aye,’ said Balmaghie, ‘I warrant the puir hill-folk werna muckle the better o' Baldoon's supplications.’
Then Claverhouse, receiving back the paper, looked up with great alertness.
‘But I have chanced in that very country to fall on a nest of the fanatics.’
He looked cautiously about, and I had no more than time to step back into the little pantry where Alisoun Begbie was already washing the dishes. She put her arm about me to keep me within, and before she let me go, she kissed me. Which I suffered without great concern—for, being a lass from Borgue, she was not uncomely, though, like all these shore lassies, a little forritsome.
KATE OF THE DARK BROWS
Betimes we came to a little row of white cottages deep in the wood, with only a green clearing at the door, and the trees swaying broad branches over the roof.
Here we washed ourselves, and Wat set to shaving me and cutting my hair close, in order that if necessary I might wear a wig. Then we went into the gardens, where we found the chief gardener of Balmaghie, whose name was Samuel Irving.
Samuel was a grave man with a very long upper lip, which gave him a sour and discontented expression, but secretly he was a good man and a great favourer of the hill-folk. Also he was very upright and well-doing in the matters of seeds and fruits and perquisites, and greatly in favour with his master, Mr. Roger McGhie.
So we set out much refreshed, and were going by a path through the woods, when suddenly who should come upon us at a turn but Kate McGhie. Wat ran to her to take her hands, but she gave him the go-by with the single frugal favour of a saucy glance. ‘Strangers first!’ she said, and so came forward and greeted me.
‘You are welcome to Balmaghie, William Gordon,’ she said. ‘I would you came as guest, and not as servitor; but some day I know you shall enter by the front door.’
She glanced round with a questioning air. Wat was standing half turned away, very haughty in his demeanour.
Kate McGhie looked towards him. She was in truth a comely maid—for one that is black of favour.
‘Now you may come,’ she said.
He seemed as if he would refuse and turn away. But she looked fixedly at him, defying him with her eyes to do it, and after a moment's battle of regards he came slowly towards us.
‘Come nearer!’ she commanded imperiously.
He came up with his eyes kindling. I think that no less than kissing was in his mind, and that for a moment he thought that she might permit it.
But suddenly she drew herself proudly away, and her look was disdainful and no doubt hard to be borne.
‘Are these fit manners from a servant?’ she said. ‘They that eat the meat and sit below the salt, must keep the distance.’
Wat's countenance fell in a moment. I never saw one with so many ups and down in such short space. The allures and whimsies of this young she-slip made him alternately sulk and brighten like an April day.
‘Kate!’ he began to say, in the uncertain tone of a petitioner.
‘Mistress Katherine McGhie, if you please!’ said she, dropping him a courtly courtesy.
‘Have you forgotten quite?’ Wat said.
‘Ah,’ she said, ‘it is you who have forgotten. You were not the gardener then. I do not allow gardeners to kiss me—unless my hand on Sundays when their faces are more than ordinarily clean. Would you like to have that, Heather Jock?’
And she held out the back of her hand.
The silly fellow coloured to his brow, and was for turning away with his head very much in the air.
But she ran after him, and took him by the hand.
Then he would have caught her about with his arms, but she escaped out of them lightly as a bird.
‘Na, na, Lochinvar,’ she cried merrily, in the common speech. ‘That is as muckle as is good for you’—she looked at him with the light of attraction in her eyes— ‘afore folk,’ she added, with a glance at him that I could not fathom.
Nevertheless, I saw for the first time all that was between them. So with no more said, Kate fled fleet-foot down the path towards the great house, which we could see standing grey and massive at the end of the avenue of beeches.
‘There's a lass by yon burnside that will do as muckle for you; but dinna bide to speer her leave!’ she cried to me over her shoulder, a word which it was hard to understand.
I asked Wat, who stood staring after her in a kind of wrapt adoration, what she could mean.
He gazed at me, as if he did not see what kind of animal was making the noise like talking. I am sure that for the time he knew me not from John Knox.
‘What did she mean?’ I asked him.
‘Mean!’ said he, ‘mean…’ speaking vaguely as one in a swither.
‘You are heady and moidered with not getting a kiss from a lass,’ said I, with, I grant, some little spite.
‘Did she ever kiss you?’ cried he, looking truculently at me.
‘Nay!’ said I bluntly, for indeed the thing was not in my thought.
‘Then you ken naught about it. You had better hold your wheesht!’
He stood so long thinking, sometimes giving his thigh a little slap, like one that has suddenly remembered something pleasant which he had forgotten, that I was near coming away in disgust and leaving the fool, when I remembered that I knew not where to go.
In a while he came to himself somewhat, and I told him what Kate McGhie had said to me over her shoulder.
‘Did Kate say that?’ he cried. ‘She could surely not have said all that and I not hear her.’
‘Out, you fool,’ I said, for so of custom I spoke to him, being my cousin and playmate. ‘You had other matter to think of. Say it she did.’
He repeated the words which I told him, and I declare even the sound of them seemed to be in danger of throwing him into another rhapsody.
But at last he said, suddenly, ‘Oh, I ken what she means…’ And he drew a long breath. ‘I suppose we had better go down to the water side. She will not come out again, if we wait all night.’ And he went some way along the avenue and looked long and hard at one heavy-browed window of the old house which seemed to be winking at us.
It is a strange thing how love affects different people. You never can tell beforehand how it will be. I could not have believed that the presence of a forward lass with black eyebrows could have made a moonstruck fool of Wildcat Wat of Lochinvar.
He still stood and looked at the window till my patience was ended.
‘Come on, man,’ I cried. ‘I declare you are not Heather Jock, as she called you, but Heather Jackass!’
At another time he would have knocked my head off, but now my jesting affected him no more than a sermon. And this I took to be the worst sign of all.
‘Well, come on then,’ he said. ‘You are surely in an accursed sweat of haste tonight!’
And we took our way down to the water side, having wasted more than an hour. We had not advanced far down the pillared avenue of the beech trees, when suddenly we came in sight of Maisie Lennox. She was coming slowly towards us along one of the forest roads. At the same time I saw my mother, walking away from me down a path which led along the side of the Dee water. She had her back to me, and was going slowly with her head down. To my shame I ran to meet Maisie Lennox. But first ere I reached her she said quietly to me, ‘Have you not seen your mother?’
‘Aye,’ answered I. ‘She has gone down the road to the water side.’
‘Then let no greeting come before your mother's,’ she said, looking very ill-pleased at me as I ran forward to take her hand.
So with a flea in my ear I turned me about and went off, somewhat shamed as you may believe, to find my mother. When I got back to the path on which I had seen her, I left Wat far behind and ran after my mother, calling loudly to her.
At the sound of my voice she turned and held up her hands.
‘Willie, boy!’ she cried.
And in a moment she had me in her arms, crooning over me and making much of me. She told me also, when she had time to look well at me, that I was much better in health than when I had lain in the well-house of Earlstoun.
‘And you came first to see your old mother. That was like my ain Willie!’ she said, a word which made me ashamed. So I had no answer to make, though nevertheless I took the credit of the action as much by silence as by speech.
Then Maisie Lennox came through the wood, and demeaning herself right soberly, she held out her hand.
‘Did you not see William before?’ asked my mother, looking from one to the other of us.
‘Only at a distance, on his way to you,’ said Maisie, speaking in her demure way.
It was in the little holding of Boatcroft by the side of the Dee, and among the water meadows which gird the broad stream, that we found my mother, Maisie Lennox, and little Margaret Wilson snugly settled. Their position here was not one to be despised. They were safe for the time being at least, upon the property of Roger McGhie. Every day the old man passed their loaning-end. And though he knew that by rights only a herd should live at the Boatcroft, yet he made no complaint nor asked any question for conscience' sake, when he saw my mother with Maisie Lennox at her elbow, or little Margaret of Glen Vernock moving about the little steading.
In the evening it fell to me to make my first endeavours at waiting at table, for though women were safe enough anywhere on the estate, Balmaghie was not judged to be secure for me except within the house itself.
So my mother gave me a great many cautions about how I should demean myself, and how to be silent and mannerly when I handed the dishes.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.