CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT
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.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.