WULLCAT WAT DARES HEAVEN AND HELL
It was about the end of February, when the days are beginning to creep out quickly from their shortest, that my aunt, the Lady Lochinvar, came to town. I, that asked only meat and house-room, companied not much with the braver folk who sought the society of my cousin of Lochinvar. Wat glanced here and there in some new bravery every day, and I saw him but seldom. However, my lady aunt came to see me when she had been but three days in town. For she was punctilious about the claims of blood and kinship, which, indeed, women mostly think much more of than do men.
‘A good morning, cousin,’ said she, ‘and how speeds the suit?’
Then I told her somewhat of the law's delays and how I had an excellent lawyer, albeit choleric and stormy in demeanour,—one of mine own name, Mr. William Gordon, though his pleas were drawn by James Stewart, presently in hiding. What Gordon said went down well with my Lords of the Council meeting in Holyrood, for he was a great swearer and damned freely in his speech. But Hugh Wallace, that was the King's cash-keeper, claimed the fine because that my father was a heritor—conform to the Acts of Parliament made against these delinquencies and conventicles in 1670 and 1672, appointing the fines of heritors being transgressors to come into the treasury. But Sir George Mackenzie said, ‘If this plea be not James Stewart's drawing I have no skill of law. Tell me, Gordon, gin ye drew this yoursel' or is James Stewart in Scotland?’
Then my lady of Lochinvar asked of me when I thought my matters might be brought to an end.
‘That I know not,’ said I; ‘it seems slow enough.’
‘All law is slow, save that which my man and your father got,’ said she.
I was astonished that she should mention her man, with that courage and countenance, and the story not six months old; indeed, his very head sticking on the Netherbow, not a mile from us as we talked. But she saw some part of this in my face, and quickly began to say on.
‘You Gordons never think you die honest unless you die in arms against the King. But ye stand well together, though your hand is against every other man. And that is why I, that am but a tacked-on Gordon, come to help you if so be I can; though I and my boy stand for the King, and you and your rebel brother Sandy for the Covenants. Weary fa' them—that took my man from me—for he was a good man to me, though we agreed but ill together concerning kings and politics.’
‘Speak for my brother Sandy,’ I said, ‘I am no strong sufferer, and so shall get me, I fear me, no golden garments.’
Thus I spoke in my ignorance, for the witty lown warm air of Edinburgh in spiritual things had for the time being infected me with opinions like those of the Laodicians.
Now this was a favourite overword of my mother's, that suffering was the Christian's golden garment. But to my aunt, to whom religion was mostly family tradition (or so I thought), I might as well have spoken of fried fish.
‘But concerning Walter,’ she went on, as one that comes to a real subject after beating about the bush, ‘tell me of him. You have been here with him in this city the best part of three months.’
Now indeed I saw plainly enough what it was that had procured me the honour of a visit so early from my lady of Lochinvar.
‘In this city I have indeed been, my aunt,’ I replied, ‘but not with Walter. For I am not Lord of Lochinvar, but only the poor suitor of the King's mercy. And I spent not that which I have not, nor yet can I afford further to burden the estate which may never be mine.’
She waved her hand as at a Whig scruple, which good King's folk made light of.
‘But what of Walter—you have seen—is it well with the lad?’
She spoke eagerly and laid her hand on my arm.
But after all the business was not mine, and besides, a Gordon—Covenant or no Covenant—is no tale-piet, as my lady might well have known.
‘Wat Gordon,’ said I, ‘is the gayest and brightest young spark in town, like a Damascus blade for mettle, and there are none that love not his coming, and grieve not at his going.’
‘Ay—ladies, that I ken,’ said my aunt. ‘What of my Lady Wellwood?’
Now I had a very clear opinion of my Lady Wellwood, though I knew her not; for indeed she would not have waved the back of her lily hand to me in the street. But she was a handsome woman, and I admired her greatly for the fairness of her countenance as she went by. Besides, the business of Wat and my Lady Wellwood was none of mine.
‘My lady is in truth a fine woman,’ I said calmly, looking up as if I were saying what must please my visitor.
The Lady Lochinvar struck one hand on the other hastily and rose.
‘Attend me home,’ she said; ‘I see after all that you are a man, and so must defend all men and admire all women.’
‘The last, for your ladyship's sake, I do,’ I made answer. For in those days we were taught to be courteous to the elder ladies, and to make them becoming compliments, which is in danger of being a forgotten art in these pettifogging times.
‘What takes you to the Covenant side?’ asked Lady Lochinvar, ‘Certes, the Falkland dominie had not made that speech.’
‘The same that took your husband, Lady Lochinvar,’ I returned, somewhat nettled. For she spake as if the many honest folk in Scotland were but dirt beneath the feet of the few. But that was ever the way of her kind.
‘Kenned ye ever a Gordon that would be driven with whips of scorpions, or one that could not be drawn with the light of ladies' eyes?’
She sighed, and gathered up her skirts.
‘Ay, the last all too readily,’ she said, thinking, I doubt not, of Walter Gordon and my lady of Wellwood.
It was dusking when we stepped out. My aunt took my arm and desired that we should walk home, though already I had called a chair for her. So we went up the narrow, dirty street and came slowly to her lodgings. Walter met us on the stair of the turnpike. He was shining in silk and velvet as was recently his constant wont. Lace ruffles were at his wrists. He had a gold chain about his neck, and a jewelled rapier flashed and swung in a gold-broidered velvet sheath at his side.
He seemed no little dashed by our coming in together. I quickly understood that he had thought his mother safely out of the way, and wondered how I should keep the peace between them. For by the tremble of her hand on my arm I felt that the storm was nigh the breaking.
Yet for all that he stopped and kissed her dutifully, standing on the step with his hat in his hand, to let her pass within. The flickering light of the cruisie lamp in the stairhead fell on him, and I thought he had the noblest figure of a youth that ever my eyes had rested upon.
But his mother would not let him go.
‘Attend me to my chamber, Walter,’ she said. ‘I have that concerning which I would speak with you.’
So we went upward, turning and twisting up the long stairs, till we came to the door where my lady lodged. She tirled fretfully at the pin, the servant-maid opened, and we went within. The window stood wide to give a draft to the fire of wood that burned on the firegrate. I went over to close it, and, as I did so, a broad flake of snow swirled down, and lay melting on my wrist. It told me that it was to be a wild night—the last snowstorm of the year, belike.
My lady came back from her own bed-chamber in a moment. She had merely laid aside her plaid, waiting not to change her gown lest her son should be gone.
Walter Gordon stood discontentedly enough at the side of the firegrate, touching the glowing embers with his French shoe, careless of how he burnt it.
‘Walter,’ said my aunt, ‘will you not pleasure us with your company tonight?’
‘I cannot, my lady,’ said Lochinvar, without looking up; ‘I have made an engagement elsewhere.’
He spoke baldly and harshly, as one that puts a restraint on himself.
His mother looked at him with her eyes like coals from which the leaping flame has just died out. For a moment she said nothing, but the soul within her flamed out of the windows of her house of clay, fiery and passionate. It had come to the close and deadly pinch with her, and it was on the dice's throw whether she would lose or keep her son.
‘Walter Gordon,’ she said at last, ‘has your mother journeyed thus far to so little purpose, that now she is here, you will not do her the honour to spend a single night in her company? Since when has she become so distasteful to you?’
‘Mother,’ said Wat, moved in spite of himself, ‘you do not yourself justice when you speak so. I would spend many nights with you, for all my love and service are yours; but tonight I cannot fail to go whither I have promised without being man-sworn and tryst-breaker. And you have taught me that the Gordons are neither.’
‘Wat,’ she said, hearing but not heeding his words, ‘bide you by me tonight. There be sweet maids a many that will give their lives for you. You are too young for such questing and companionry. Go not to my Lady Wellwood tonight. O do not, my son! 'Tis your mother that makes herself a beggar to you!’
At the name of my Lady Wellwood Walter Gordon started from his place as though he had been stung and glanced over at me with a sudden and fiery anger.
‘If my cousin…’
But I kept my eyes clear upon him, as full of fire mayhap as his own. And even in that moment I saw the thought pass out of his mind in the uncertain firelight.
‘Your cousin has told me nothing, though I deny not that I asked him,’ said my lady curtly. ‘Young men hang together, like adder's eggs. But Wat, dear Wat, will you not put off your gay apparelling and take a night at the cartes with us at home. See, the fire is bright and the lamp ready. It will be a wild night without presently!’
‘Tomorrow, mother, tomorrow at e'en shall be the night of my waiting upon you. Tonight, believe me, I cannot—though, because you ask me, with all my heart I would that I could.’
Then his mother rose up from her seat by the fire, and went up to him. She laid her hand on his arm and looked into his eyes.
‘O Walter, my boy, go not forth tonight’—(here I declare to God the proud woman knelt to her own son)— ‘See, I have put off my pride, and I pray you not to go for my sake—for your mother's sake, that never denied you anything. There is evil boding in the air.’
She shuddered and, in rising, threw an arm over his shoulder, as though she had been his sweetheart and were fleeching with him.
For a moment I saw Wat Gordon waver. Then he took her hand gently and drew it down from his shoulder.
‘Mother, for you I would do all, save set a stain upon my honour. But this thing I cannot, for I have plighted my word deep and fast, and go I must tonight.’
‘Tell me,’ said my aunt, ‘is it a matter of treason to the King?’
Her eyes were eager, expectant. And for very pity of her I hoped that Walter could give her satisfaction on the point. But it was not as I thought, for who can track a woman's heart?
‘God forbid,’ said Wat Gordon heartily, as one that is most mightily relieved.
But his mother fell back and her hands dropped to her side.
‘Then,’ she said, ‘it is my Lady Wellwood!—I had rather a thousand times it had been treason and rebellion—aye, though it had set your head on high beside your father's.’
‘Lady Wellwood or another!’ cried Wat, ‘nor heaven nor hell shall gar me break my tryst this nicht!’
And without another word Walter Gordon went down the stairs as one that runs defiantly to death, daring both God and man—and, alas! the mother also that bore him.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.