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!’
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.