MARDROCHAT THE SPY
Then even as upon the hillside I watched and waited, I saw one come out and go round about the bower. It was a figure in woman's garments. I knew the form at the first sight. It was Kate McGhie of the Balmaghie. I had found our lost maids. So I gave a whistle that she knew with my bird call, such as every lad of the heather carried, from old Sandy Peden to young James Renwick. At the first sound of it, she started as though she had been stung. At the second peep and whinny she came a little way on tiptoe. So I whistled with a curious turn at the end, as Wat, my cousin, was wont to do. Whereupon she came a little further, and I could see her eyes looking about eagerly.
Then I stood up and came running down the side of the gairy till she saw me. She gave a little cry and put her hands to her heart, for I think she had not expected to see me, but some other—Wat of Lochinvar, as I guess. But for all that she held out her hands as if she were mightily glad to see me.
‘Ye canna send us back now!’ she cried out, before even I came near to her.
‘Ye deserve to get soundly payed for this misdemeanour,’ I answered. ‘Did ye ever think of the sore hearts ye left behind ye?’
‘Oh, my father,’ said Kate lightly, ‘he would just read his book, bless King Chairlie, walk the avenue, and say 'Kate, Kate—deil's in the lassie! The daft hizzie has tane the hill again!'‘
‘But will not he be angry?’
‘Angry, Roger McGhie? Na, na; I bade Mally Lintwhite make him potted-head, and gie him duck aff the pond to his supper, stuffed with mushrooms; and atween that and his claret wine he will thrive brawly.’
Then Kate McGhie seemed suddenly to remember something, and we went down the hillside among the stones.
‘Bide ye there!’ she commanded, halting me with her hand as John Graham halts a squadron. And I did as I was bidden; for in those days Kate had most imperious ways with her.
She stole down quietly, stooped her head to raise the flap which made a curtain door for the bower, and went within. I watched with all my eyes, for I was eager to see once more Maisie Lennox, my dear sometime comrade and gossip. In a little she came forth, but what a leap my heart gave when I saw how pale she looked. Her hand and arm were bandaged, and she leaned lightly on Kate's shoulder.
Do you wonder that my desire went out to her greatly, and that all in a moment I sprang down the rickle of stones as if they had been a made road?
‘Maisie, Maisie, wha has done this to ye, my lassie?’ I cried, or something like that (for I do not mind the words very well). And with that she fell to the greeting—the lass that never grat whatever was wrong, so that I was fair beside myself to see her. And Kate McGhie pushed me forward by the shoulder, and made signs frowningly, which I could not understand. I thought she meant that I was to go away till Maisie had somewhat recovered herself.
Very obediently I made to do so, and was for stealing away up the hill again, when Kate stamped her foot and said suddenly, ‘If ye daur!’ So I abode where I was, till it seemed to me that Maisie was about to fall, being yet weak. So I went to hold her up, and as soon as I did so, Kate McGhie slipped out of sight. Now, I think she did this of intention, for when she convoyed me a little down the hill, when I went in the evening, she rallied me very sorely.
‘Man William Gordon,’ she said; ‘I e'en thocht I wad hae to pit your airms aboot her, and tell ye what to say. Ye maun be a queer make o' men up about the Glenkens. I thank a merciful Providence that we have another kind o' them about the headend o' Balmaghie!’
But when she left us I needed no instruction. With the best will in the world I fell to comforting Maisie; and though I put not down the matter of our discourse (which concerned only ourselves), I can vouch for it that speedily we were at one. And for a long season I sat on the grey bowder stones of the gairy and made much of her in another fashion than that of a comrade.
Then after this our first pleasuring was by-past, she told me how that Kate and she had come away to seek for her father, because of the report that had come of his danger and illness; but that an accident had befallen them upon the way, and they had failed of their errand. What the accident was she would not tell me, saying that Kate McGhie would be fond enough to give me the story. Then they had built this bower by the burnside, where ever since they had remained safe and unmolested.
I asked how they got their provender.
‘O,’ she said, ‘Hughie Kerr brings it over the hill from the howe of the Kells. We have had no want of good meal.’
Then when we had talked and I had told her of her father and his welfare, I bethought me to urge her to bide where she was, for that night at all events, saying that perhaps in the morning she might come over to see him. For I desired, seeing that the place was no longer safe (if, indeed, the persecutors did know where Anton was hid, which I believed not), to have him shifted as soon as he could bear the journey. But yet I was loath to do it, for there is no hold in all the high hill-lands so commodious as Cove Macaterick above the loch of that name.
When Kate McGhie came again to us, methought she looked more approvingly upon me than before—but indulgently, as one that passes an indifferent piece of work, which yet she herself could better have performed.
As soon as she came near, I began to ask her of Maisie's accident and the cause of it.
‘Has she not told you herself? I am not going to heat cauld porridge for you twa to sup,’ she said, in the merry way which never deserted her. For she was ever the most spirity wench in the world, and though a laird's daughter, it pleased her often to speak in the country fashion.
But when I had advertised her that Maisie had not said a word about the matter, but on the contrary had referred me to herself, Kate McGhie made a pretty mouth and gave a little whistle.
‘After all, then,’ she said, ‘we are not round the corner yet!’
Then she began to tell me of their journeying in the night after Pherson, the serving-man, had left them.
‘We cam' over the heather licht foot as hares,’ said Kate McGhie. ‘The stars were bonny above. A late moon was rising over the taps by Balmaclellan, and the thocht that I was out on the heather hills set a canty fire in my breast.
‘A' gaed richt till we cam' to the new brig across the Water o' Dee, that was biggit a year or twa syne wi' the collections in the kirks. When we cam' to it we were liltin' blythe and careless at a sang, when oot o' the dark o' the far side there steps a muckle cankersome lookin' man in a big cloak, an' stan's richt in the midst o' the road!
‘'Whaur gang ye sae late at nicht by this road withoot the leave o' Mardrochat?' says he.
‘'Sang,' says I. 'Wha's midden's this? And wha's Mardrochat that his barn-door cock craws sae croose on til't?'
‘For,’ said Kate McGhie, looking at me, ‘as ye ken, I hadna been learned at the Balmaghie to thole snash frae onybody.’
At which I smiled, for well I knew Kate's reputation with her tongue.
'This is Mardrochat's road, and by the King's command his business is to question all comers. But it's not ill-gi'en words that he wad use wi' twa sic bonny lassies!' says the loon in the cloak.
'Dear sirs,' says I, 'fifty puddin's on a plate! Mardrochat maun be a braw lad. Is he the King's hangman? It's an honourable and well-considered office nowadays, they tell me.'
'Satisfy me whar ye are gaun sae late,' says the ill-contriving chiel, 'an' maybes I'll convoy ye a bit o' the road. It shall never be said that Mardrochat left twa weel-faured lassies them-lane in the howe o' the nicht!'
'Heighty-teighty,' I telled the man, 'oor coo's come hame, an' her tail's ahint her! Stand oot o' the road an' let decent folk to their beds!'
'There's nae beds bena the heather that gate!' said the man. And faith, there he was in the right of it. There were no beds except the wanderers' beds in the moss-hags that road for twenty lang Scots miles.
And all this time we were standing on the brig close to one another.
'Let us gang by,' said I again.
'Na,' said the long loon that had called himself Mardrochat, and wha I kenned for an ill-set informer that made his siller by carrying tales to Clavers and Lag, 'ye pass na this road. Ye maun e'en turn and come wi' me!'
And I think he would have come forward to put his hand upon us. But I made to get past him at one side, crying to Maisie to try the other. For I thought that the two of us were surely a match for any black thief of the kind to be found in the Glenkens.
But as I was running by, he grippit me with one hand and drew his windlestrae of a sword wi' the other—drew it on a pair o' lassies, mind ye. Then what think ye? Your bit lassie there, Missie Mim, she flew on him like a wullcat and gripped the blade atween her fingers till she drew it oot o' his hand. Then she took it across her knee and garred it play snap like a rotten branch. Syne ower it gaed intil the water. And that was the way she got the cut on her hand, poor thing.’
Then I gave a great shout and clasped Maisie in my arms, yet not harshly, lest she should be weak. I was glad to hear this testimony to her bravery.
‘That is of a better fashion,’ said Kate, like one who has store of experience. Then she went on with her story, for she had yet more to tell. ‘But the loon was dour for a' the want o' his sword, and we micht no' hae mastered him but that he tried to trip us and so got tripped himself. He fell so that the head o' him took the wa' and fair dang him stupid. So we e'en gied him a bit hoise an' ower he gaed intil the water.’
‘Mercy on us,’ I cried, ‘ye didna droon the man?’
‘Droon him,’ said Kate, ‘deil a fear! Yon chiel is made for the tow. He'll droon nane. The last we saw o' him, he was sitting on his hurdies in the shallows, up to his neck in the water, trying what banes war hale after his stramash.
‘So,’ continued Kate, ‘we gaed our roads in peace, and the chiel sat still in the water, thrawin' his heid aboot and aboot like a turnspit, as lang as we could see him.’
Even thus Kate McGhie told her tale, making my lass dearer to me with every word. Of Mardrochat the informer, who had made bold to meddle with them, I had heard many times. He had been a Covenanter of zeal and forwardness till, at a meeting of the Societies, his double-faced guile had been laid bare. Ever since which day in the wilds of Friarminion, he had been a cunning, spying fox, upon the track of the hill-folk. But I knew how dangerous the man could be, and liked it ill enough that the maids should have crossed him so early on their pilgrimage. I doubted not that it was from him that the original information had come, which, being carried to the enemy by Birsay and overheard by me in the house of Balmaghie, had sent us all hiving to the mountains.
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men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.