THE BULL OF EARLSTOUN'S HOMECOMING
It was about this time that Sandy came home. It may seem from some parts of this history that we agreed not over well together. But after all it was as brothers may disagree among themselves; though they are banded stoutly enough against all the world beside. I think it made us love one another more that recently we had been mostly separate; and so when Sandy came home this time and took up his old lodging in the tree, it was certainly much heartsomer at the Earlstoun. For among other things our mother mostly went to carry him his meals of meat, taking with her Jean Hamilton, Sandy's wife, thus leaving only Maisie Lennox to bring me my portion to the well-house.
But often in the gloaming Sandy himself came climbing up by the ivy on the outside of the well-tower, letting his great body down through the narrow broken lattice in the tiles. And in that narrow chamber we cheered one another with talk. This I liked well enough, so long as he spoke of Groningen and the Low Countries. But not so well when he began to deafen me with his bickerings about the United Societies—how there was one, Patrick Laing, a man of fierce and determined nature, that could not company with other than himself; how Mr. Linning wrestled with the other malcontents, and especially how he himself was of so great honour and consideration among them, that they had put off even so grave a matter as a General Meeting that he might have time to come from Edinburgh to attend it. And in what manner, at the peril of his life, he did it.
One night, while he was in the midst of his recital, the mighty voice of him sounding out upon the night brought the sentry from his corner—who listened, but could not understand whence came the sounds. Presently the soldier called his comrade, and the pair of them stole to the door of the well-house, where I had lain so long in safety. Sandy was in the heat of his discourse, and I sitting against the chamber wall in my knee-breeches, and with a plaid about me, listening at my ease. For long immunity had made us both careless.
‘At Darmead, that well-kenned place, we had it,’ Sandy was saying, his long limbs extended half-way across the floor as he lay on the bare boards, and told his story; ‘it was a day of glorious witnessing and contesting. No two of us thought the same thing. Each had his own say-away and his own reasons, and never a minister to override us. Indeed, since Ritchie lay down at length on Ayrsmoss to rest him, there is no minister that could. But I hear of a young man, Renwick, that is now with Mr. Brackel of Leeuwarden, that will scare some of the ill-conditioned when he comes across the water——’
Even as he spoke thus, and blattered with the broad of his hand on his knee, the trap-door in the floor slowly lifted up. And through the aperture came the head of a soldier—even that of the sentry of the night, with whose footfalls I had grown so familiar, that I minded them no more than the ticking of the watch in your pocket or the beating of your heart in the daytime.
The man seemed even more surprised than we, and for a long moment he abode still, looking at Sandy reclining on the floor. And Sandy looked back at him with his jaw dropped and his mouth open. I could have laughed at another time, for they were both great red men with beards of that colour, and their faces were very near one another, like those of the yokels that grin at each other emulously out of the horse collars on the turbulent day of the Clachan Fair—which is on the eve of St. John, in the time of midsummer.
Then suddenly Sandy snatched an unlighted lantern, and brought it down on the soldier's head, which went through the trap-door like Jack-out-of-the-box being shut down again.
‘Tak' the skylight for it, William,’ Sandy cried. ‘I'll e'en gang doon an' see what this loon wants!’
So snatching a sword that lay upon the boards by his side, Sandy went down the trap after his man. I heard him fall mightily upon the two soldiers to whom had been committed the keeping of the house that night. In that narrow place he gripped them both with the first claucht of his great arms, and dadded their heads together, exhorting them all the time to repent and think on their evil ways.
‘Wad ye, then, vermin,’ he cried as one and another tried to get at him with their weapons round the narrow edge of the well-curb; and I heard one after another of their tools clatter down the masonry of the well, and plump into the water at the bottom. The men were in their heavy marching gear, being ready at all times for the coming of Clavers, who was a great man for discipline, and very particular that the soldiers should always be properly equipped whenever it might please him to arrive. And because he loved night marches and sudden surprises, the men took great pains with their accoutrement.
‘Can I help ye, Sandy?’ I cried down through the hole.
‘Bide ye whaur ye are, man. I can manage the hullions fine! Wad ye, then? Stan' up there back to back, or I'll gie ye anither daud on the kerb that may leave some o' your harns stickin' to it. Noo, I'll put the rape roon ye, an' ease ye doon to a braw and caller spot!’
I looked down the trap and saw Sandy roving the spare coil of well-rope round and round his two prisoners. He had their hands close to their sides, and whenever one of them opened his mouth, Sandy gave his head a knock with his open hand that drave him silent again, clapping his teeth together like castanets from Spain.
As soon as he had this completed to his satisfaction, he lifted the bucket from the hook, and began to lower the men down the shaft, slinging them to the rope by the belly-bands of His Majesty's regimental breeches.
The men cried out to ask if he meant to drown them.
‘Na, na, droon nane,’ said Sandy. ‘There's but three feet o' water in the well. Ye'll be fine and caller doon there a' nicht, but gin ye as muckle as gie a cry afore the morrow's sunrise—weel, ye hae heard o' Sandy Gordon o' the Earlstoun!’
And this, indeed, feared the men greatly, for he was celebrated for his strength and daring all athwart the country; and especially among soldiers and common people, who, as is well known, are never done talking about feats of strength.
This being completed, he brought me down from my loft and took me into the house to bid the women folk farewell. They cried out with terror when he told them what he had done as a noble jest, and how he had bound the soldiers and put them in the well-bottom. But my mother said sadly, ‘It is the beginning of the end! O Sandy, why could you not have been content with scaring them?’
‘It was our lives or theirs, mither,’ said Sandy. ‘Had they gotten room to put steel into me, your first-born son wad hae been at the well-bottom, wi' his heid doon an' his mooth open, and your second dangling in a hempen collar in the Grass Market. The eggs are all in one basket now, mither!’
‘Haste ye away!’ cried she, ‘lest the soldiers break lowse and come and find ye here!’
‘They hae somewhat better sense than to break lowse this nicht,’ said Sandy, grimly smiling. ‘I'm gaun nane to tak' the heather withoot my supper.’
So he sat him down on the settle like a man at ease and well content.
‘Jean, fetch the plates,’ he said to his wife; ‘it's graund to be hungry an' ken o' meat!’
Maisie Lennox stood quietly by; but I could see that she liked not the turn of affairs, nor the reckless way that Sandy had of driving all things before him.
‘Haste ye, young lass,’ he said to her, and at the word she went quietly to help Jean Hamilton.
‘Whither gang ye?’ our mother said to us, as we made us ready to flee. ‘Mind and be canny wi' that laddie, Sandy, for he has been ill and needs care and tendance to this day.’
And it pleased me to see that Maisie Lennox looked pale and anxious when she came near me. But no word spoke she.
‘Na, mither. I'll no tell ye whaur we gang, for ye micht be put to the question, and now ye can say ye dinna ken wi' a guid conscience.’
I got a word with Maisie at the stair foot as she went up to bring some plaid or kerchief down, which our mother insisted I should take with me.
‘Maisie,’ I said, ‘ye'll no forget me, will ye?’
But she would give me no great present satisfaction.
‘There are so many gay things in my life to gar me forget a friend!’ was all she said; but she looked down and pulled at her apron.
‘Nay, but tell me, my lassie, will ye think every day o' the lad ye nursed in the well-house chamber?’
‘Your mother is crying on me,’ she said; ‘let me go, William’ (though indeed I was not touching her).
I was turning away disappointed with no word more, but very suddenly she snatched my hand which had fallen to my side, pressed it a moment to her breast, and then fled upstairs like a young roe.
So, laden with wrappings, Sandy and I took our way over the moor, making our path through our own oakwood, which is the largest in Galloway, and out by Blawquhairn and Gordiestoun upon the moor of Bogue—a wet and marshy place, save in the height of the dry season. Sandy was for going towards a hold that he had near the lonely, wind-swept loch of Knockman, which lies near the top of a hill of heather and bent. But as we came to the breast of the Windy Brae, I felt my weakness, and a cold sweat began to drip from me.
‘Sandy,’ I said to my brother, taking him by the hand lest he should go too fast for me, ‘I fear I shall be but a trouble to you. Leave me, I pray you, at Gordiestoun to take my chance, and hie you to the heather. It'll maybe no be a hanging matter wi' me at ony gate.’
‘Hear till him,’ said Sandy, ‘leave him! I'll leave the laddie nane. The man doesna breathe that Sanquhar and Ayrsmoss are no eneuch to draw the thrapple o', were it my Lord Chancellor himsel'!’
He bent and took me on his back. ‘There na, is that comfortable?’ he said; and away he strode with me as though he had been a giant.
‘Man, ye need mony a bow o' meal to your ribs,’ he cried, making light of the load. ‘Ye are no heavier than a lamb in the poke-neuk o' a plaid.’
I think he was sorry for stirring me from the well-chamber, and the thought of his kindness made me like him better than I had manned to do for some time.
And indeed my weight seemed no more to him, than that of a motherless suckling to a shepherd on the hill, when he steps homeward at the close of the day. It is a great thing to be strong. If only Sandy had possessed the knack of gentleness with it, he would have been a great man. As it was, he was only the Bull of Earlstoun.
We kept in our flight over the benty fell towards Milnmark, but holding more down to the right towards the Garpel burn where there are many dens and fastnesses, and where the Covenant folk had often companied together.
I was afraid to think what should come to my sickness, when the cold shelves of the rock by the Dass of the Holy Linn would be my bed, instead of the comfortable blankets of the well-house. And, truth to tell, I was not thanking my brother for his heedlessness in compelling the exchange, when I felt him stumble down the steep bank of the Garpel and stride across, the water dashing about his legs as he waded through—taking, as was his wont, no thought of an easy way or of keeping of himself dry, but just going on ram-stam till he had won clear.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.