THE WELL-HOUSE OF EARLSTOUN
So as soon as the soldier was snugly housed with the servant lass, the two women came to me, where I sat at the back of the door of the well-house. Chiefly I wanted to hear what had brought Maisie of the Duchrae so far from home as the house of Earlstoun. It seemed to betoken some ill befallen my good friends by the Grenoch water side. But my mother stooped down and put her arms about me. She declared that she would have me taken up to the west garret under the rigging, where, she said, none of the soldiers had ever been. But there I would in no wise go, for well I knew that so soon as she had me there, and a dozen soldiers between me and a dash for liberty, she would forthwith never rest until she had me out again.
Then the next idea was that I should go to the wattled platform on the oak, to which Sandy resorted; but I had fallen into a violent horror of shaking and hot flushes alternating with deadly cold, so that to bide night and day in the sole covert of a tree looked like my death.
At last Maisie Lennox, who had a fine discernment for places of concealment in the old days when we two used to play at ‘Bogle-about-the-Stacks’ at the Duchrae, cast an eye up at the roof of the well-house.
‘I declare, I think there is a chamber up there,’ she said, and stood a moment considering.
‘Give me an ease up!’ she said quietly to my mother. She did everything quietly.
‘How can there be such a place and I not know it?’ said my mother. ‘Have I not been about the tower these thirty years?’
But Maisie thought otherwise of the matter, and without more ado she set her little feet in the nicks of the stones, which were rough-set like the inside of a chimney.
Then putting her palm flat above her, she pushed an iron-ringed trap-door open, lifted herself level with it, and so disappeared from our view. We could hear her groping above us, and sometimes little stones and lime pellets fell tinkling into the well. So we remained beneath waiting for her report, and I hoped that it might not be long, for I felt that soon I must lay me down and die, so terrible was the tightness about my head.
‘There is a chamber here,’ she cried at last. ‘It is low in the rigging and part of the roof is broken towards the trees, but the ivy hides it and the hole cannot be seen from the house.’
‘The very place! Well done, young lass!’ said my mother—much pleased, even though she had not found it herself. For she was a remarkable woman.
Maisie looked over the edge.
‘Give me your hand?’ she said.
Now there is this curious thing about this lass ever since she was in short coats, that she not only knew her own mind in every emergency, but also compelled the minds of every one else. At that moment it seemed as natural that I should obey her, and also for my mother to assist her, as if she had been a queen commanding obedience. Yet she hardly ever spoke above her breath, and always rather as though she were venturing a suggestion. This is not what any one can ever learn. It is a natural gift. Now there is my brother Sandy. He has a commanding way with him certainly. He gets himself obeyed. But at what an expenditure of breath. You can hear him at the Mains of Barskeoch telling the lass to put on the porridge pot. And he cannot get his feet wet and be needing a change of stockings, without the Ardoch folk over the hill hearing all about it.
But I am telling of the well-house.
‘Give me your hand,’ said the lass Maisie down from the trap-door. It is a strange thing that I never dreamed of disobeying. So I put out my hand, and in a trice I was up beside her.
My mother followed us and we looked about. It was a little room and had long been given over to the birds. I marvelled much that in our adventurous youth, Sandy and I had never lighted upon it. But I knew the reason to be that we had a wholesome dread of the well, having been told a story about a little boy who tumbled into it in the act of disobedience and so was drowned. We heard also what had become of him afterwards, which discouraged us from the forbidden task of exploration.
I think no one had been in the place since the joiners left it, for the shavings yet lay in the corner, among all that the birds and the wild bees had brought to it since.
My mother stayed beside me while Maisie went to bring me a hot drink, for the shuddering grew upon me, and I began to have fierce pains in my back and legs. My mother told me how that the main guard of the soldiers had been a week away over in the direction of Minnyhive, all but a sergeant's file that were left to keep the castle. Today all these men, except the sentry, were down drinking at the change-house in the clachan, and not till about midnight would they come roaring home.
She also told me (which I much yearned to know), that the Duchrae had at last been turned out, and that old Anton had betaken himself to the hills. Maisie, his daughter, had come to the neighbourhood with Margaret Wilson of Glen Vernock, the bright little lass from the Shireside whom I had first seen during my sojourn in Balmaghie. Margaret Wilson had friends over at the farm of Bogue on the Garpelside. Very kind to the hill-folk they were, though in good enough repute with the Government up till this present time. From there Maisie Lennox had come up to Earlstoun, to tell my mother all that she knew of myself and my cousin Wat. Then, because the two women loved to talk the one to the other, at Earlstoun she abode ever since, and there I found her.
So in the well-house I remained day by day in safety all through my sickness.
The chamber over the well was a fine place for prayer and meditation. At first I thought that each turn of the sentry would surely bring him up the trap-door with sword and musket pointed at me, and I had little comfort in my lodging. But gradually, by my falling to the praying and by the action of time and use, I minded the comings and goings of the soldiers no more than those of the doves that came in to see me at the broken part of the roof, and went out again with a wild flutter of their wings, leaving a little woolly feather or two floating behind them.
And often as I lay I minded me how I had heard Mr. Peden say at the Conventicle that ‘the prayers of the saints are like to a fire which at first gives off only smoke and heat, but or all be done breaketh out into a clear light and comfortable flame.’
These were times of great peace for us, when the soldiers and the young lairds that rode with them for the horsemanship part of it, went off on their excursions, and came not back till late at eventide, with many of the Glenkens wives' chuckies swinging head down at their saddle bows.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.