THE GREY MOWDIEWORT
But by this time I was shaking like a leaf for fear, together with the thought of what I had done in the taking of life, and the sending of my fellow-creatures to their account. Also the tears came hopping down my cheek, which is ever the effect that fighting has on me. Yet in spite of this weakness Wat shook me again by the hand, and said only:
‘You are a man!’
Notwithstanding, I was not cheered, but continued to greet like a bairn, only quietly, though I was grateful for his words, and took them not ill.
Then Walter Gordon went forward to the dead men, and turned them over, looking at each but saying no word. Lastly he went to the little stout man whom I had shot in the shoulder. As he looked in his face, from which the mask had fallen aside, he started so greatly that he almost leaped bodily in the air.
‘William, William,’ he cried, ‘by the King's head, we must run for it. This is not a 'horning' but a hanging job. 'Tis the Duke of Wellwood himself.’
Greatly startled at the name of the great Privy Councillor and favourite of the King, I went and looked. The man's face had fallen clear of the velvet mask with which it had been hidden, and looked livid and grey against the snow in the moon's uncertain light. But it was indeed the Duke, for I had often seen him going to the Parliament in his state and dignity, but there in the snow he looked inconceivably mean, dirty and small.
‘It's a' by wi' the estate noo, Walter,’ I said. ‘You and me maun tak' the heather like the lave.’
So saying, I snatched up the head wrapped in the plaid, which I had almost forgotten, and called him to come on. For we were on the outskirts of the waste ground called the King's hunting parks, and could get directly away without passing a house. But Walter was determined to return and see his mother, lest otherwise the horror of the news might take her unawares. Walter was ever his mother's boy, and I think his undutiful conduct that night now went hard with him, seeing how the affair had turned out.
I argued with him that it was the maddest ploy thus to go back. His lodgings would certainly be searched as soon as the Duke was found, and the two who had escaped should return to assist the watch. But I could not overcome his determination. He had another plan to set against mine.
‘There is a vault hereabout that I used to hide in as a boy. Silly folks say that it is haunted. But indeed there be few that know of it. You can bide there and wait till I come.’
So we went thither, and found the place commodious enough indeed, but damp and unkindly. It was situate by the chapel wall, but of late years it has been much filled up with rubbish since the pulling down of the Chapel Royal by the mob in the riots of the Revolution year.
Yet even at that time it was not a place I had any stomach for. I had liefer have been going decently to my bed in my lodgings in the West Bow—as indeed at that moment I should, but for that daft heathercat of a cousin of mine, with whose gallantries, for my sins, I thus found myself saddled.
So he went off upon his errand, leaving me alone; and I hardly looked to see him again, for I made sure that the guard would arrest him or ever he had gone a hundred yards. It was little that I could do in that sorrowful place. But I unwrapped the poor head I had brought with me, and put it with reverence in the farthest corner of the dismal den. Then I retired to an angle to wait, wrapping my plaid about me for warmth; for the night had fallen colder, as it ever does after the ceasing of a storm. I had time and to spare then for thinking upon my folly, and how I had damaged the cause that I had so nearly gained by my unlucky interference in Walter's vanities. It came to me that now of a certainty both Earlstoun and Lochinvar must pass wholly away from the Gordons, and we become attainted and landless like the red Gregors. And indeed Kenmuir's case was not much better.
So I wore the weary night away, black dismal thoughts eating like canker worms at my heart. How I repented and prayed, no man knows. For that is the young man's repentance—after he has eaten the sour fruit, to pray that he may not have the stomach-ache.
Yet being Galloway born, I had also in me the fear of the unseen, which folks call superstition. And it irked me more than all other fears to have to bide all the night (and I knew not how much longer) in that horrible vault.
It seems little enough to some, only to abide all night in a place where there is nothing but quiet bones of dead men. But, I warrant you, it is the burgher folk, who have never lain anywhere but bien and cosy in their own beds at home that are the boldest in saying this.
So the night sped slowly in that horrid tomb. I watched the white moonbeams spray over the floor and fade out, as the clouds swept clear or covered the moon's face. I listened to every sough of the wind, with a fear lest the clanking halberts of the watch should be in it. The sound of a man walking far away made me hear in fantasy the grounding of their axe-shafts as they surrounded my place of concealment. It is bad enough to have one's conscience against one, but when conscience is reinforced by a well-grounded fear of the hangman's rope, then the case grows uncouth indeed.
Yet in spite of all I think I slept a little. For once I waked and saw the moon, red and near the setting, shining through a great round hole in the end of the vault, and that so brightly that I seemed to see motes dancing in its light as in a hay-loft in the summer season. But that was not the worst of it. In my dream my eyes followed the direction of the broad beam, and lo! they fell directly on the poor blackened head of him that had once been John Gordon of Lochinvar. The suns and rains had not dealt kindly with him, and now the face looked like nothing earthly, as I saw it in the moonlight of the ugsome vault. I could have screamed aloud, for there seemed to be a frown on the brow and a writhed grin on the mouth that boded me irksome evils to come.
Now half a dozen times I have resolved to leave out of my tale, that which I then saw happen in my dream of the night. For what I am about to relate may not meet with belief in these times, when the power of Satan is mercifully restrained; and when he can no longer cast his glamourie over whom he will, but only over those who, like witch-wives and others, yield themselves up to him as his willing subjects.
But I shall tell plainly what, in the moonlight, seemed to me to befall in my dream-sleep. It appeared then to me that I was staring at the blackened head, with something rising and falling in my throat like water in a sobbing well, when the ground slowly stirred in the corner where the head lay, and even as I looked, a beast came forth—a grey beast with four legs, but blind of eye like a grey mowdiewort, which took the head between its forepaws and rocked it to and fro as a mother rocks a fretful bairn, sorrowing over it and pitying it. It was a prodigy to see the eyes looking forth from the bone-sockets of the head. Then the beast left it again lying by its lone and went and digged in the corner. As the moonlight swept across, broad and slow, through the loud beating of my heart, I heard the grey mowdiewort dig the hole deeper and yet deeper. Now the thing that made me fullest of terror was not the digging of the beast, but the manner of its throwing out the earth, which was not behind it as a dog does, but in front, out of the pit, as a sexton that digs a grave.
Then, ere the moonbeams quite left it and began to climb the wall, I seemed to see the beast roll the black Thing to the edge and cover it up, drawing the earth over it silently. After that, in my fantasy, it seemed to look at me. I heard the quick patter of its feet, and with a cry of fear I started up to flee, lest the beast should come towards me—and with that I knew no more.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.