CHAPTER FORTY TWO
THE NICK O' THE DEID WIFE
I went out, and the whole night seemed empty about me. The deep and wide basin between the hollow palms of the hills was filled with an eery leme of flame, flickering up from the ground.
I took my way with as great strides as I could compass, back to the bower under the trees. The thunder rolled continuously about and about. At times it seemed to recede far away, but always sounding from different places, as though many peals were running races one with the other. Then the lightning flickered, and keen little arrows sped hither and thither till the whole sky twanged like a harp.
It seemed a hundred miles to the shieling on the hill. And when I came near I was astonished and greatly affrighted to hear the sound of voices, and at least one of them the voice of a man. A strange fear came over me; hardly, I think, the fear of the King's men.
‘I hae brocht wi' me my silver spune,’ said a voice that went to my heart; ‘I made siccar o' my silver spoon. Gin I hae to gang to the heather for the Covenant, at least I shall gang as a lady!’
It was my mother's voice, and I ran down to her, falling into her arms, and bidding her to be quiet in the same breath.
Wat had just arrived with my mother and little Margaret of Glen Vernock, who, winding herself about all our hearts, had become as her own child to my mother in the days of her loneliness. They were weary and in need of rest; but when I had told my news and the warning I had gotten from Gash Gibbie in the fearsome precincts of the hut of Corp-licht Kate, every one felt the need of at once forsaking the Bower of the Star and betaking ourselves to Cove Macaterick—which, if not so pleasant or commodious, was at least far more safe.
So we loaded us with Hugh Kerr's meal, and the little bits of things that the lassies had gathered about them or brought with them. My mother carried only an oaken staff in her hand, and in a satchel at her girdle her beloved silver spoon (with ‘Mary Hope’ on it in antique letters), which her father had given her for her own when she learned to read, and first took her place at the table above the salt.
‘O what wad he hae said, that was Lord President of Session in his time, gin he had seen his dochter Mary linkin' ower the heather wi' her coats kilted in her auld age?’ my mother cried out once when we hurried her. For she had ever a great notion of her lineage—though indeed the Hopes are nothing to compare with the Gordons for antiquity or distinction.
‘I think your father was 'at the horn' mair nor yince himsel', mither,’ said I, remembering certain daffing talk of my father's.
‘Aye, and that is just as true,’ said my mother, reconciling herself to her position, ‘forbye it is weel kenned that the wife aye wears the cockade of her lord.’
And at the word I thought of my Lady of Lochinvar, and hearkened to Wat talking low to Kate McGhie. But as for me I kept my mother by my side, and left Maisie Lennox to herself, remembering the fifth commandment—and knowing likewise that it would please Maisie best if I took care of my mother.
Thus we came to Cove Macaterick.
Now the cove upon the hillside is not wet and chill as almost all sea caves are, where the water stands on the floor and drips from every crevice. But it was at least fairly dry, if not warm, and had been roughly laid with bog-wood dug from the flowes, not squared at all, but only filled in with heather tops till the floor was elastic like the many-plied carpets of Whitehall.
There was, as I have said, an inner and an outer cave, one opening out of the other, each apartment being about sixteen feet every way, but much higher towards the roof. And so it remained till late years, when, as I hear from the herd of the Shalloch, the rocks of the gairy face have settled more down upon themselves, and so have contracted the space. But the cave remains to this day on the Back Hill of the Star over the waters of Loch Macaterick. And the place is still very lonely. Only the whaups, the ernes, and the mountain sheep cry there, even as they did in our hiding times.
We gave the inner (and higher) room to the women folk, and divided the space with a plaid hung up at the stone steps which formed a doorway.
We found Anton Lennox much recovered, but still very weak and pale. He sat propped up on his heather bed against the side of the cave. His countenance appeared stern and warlike, even when it was too dark to see, as it mostly was, his great sword leaning against the wall by his side.
I need not tell of the joy there was when Maisie Lennox greeted her father, and we that had been so wide scattered drew together once again. But as soon as I had told Wat of the happenings at the hut of Corp-licht Kate, nothing would serve him but we must set out and try to intercept the witch from fulfilling her mission. For if she brought the soldiers upon us, our trail from the bower among the trees was fresh and might be followed. Wat was determined at all costs to turn the witch; and, having brought her to her house, to keep a watch upon her there—at least till the rain had washed away our foot-prints down the mountain side, and confused them among the moss-hags.
So leaving most unwillingly the snug and sheltered place of Cove Macaterick, we stepped out into the gloomy and threatening night. The wild-fire still flickered, and the thunder rolled continuously; but the rain held off. The natural had mentioned that his mother was making over the hills toward Straiton, where for the time being Mardrochat, the informer, dwelt, and where was quartered a troop of horse for the overawing of the country.
We decided, therefore, that we should take our course in that direction, which led past Peden's hut, where the wanderer had abode so often. It was an uncanny night, but in some fashion we stumbled along—now falling into moss-hags almost to the waist, and now scrambling out again, and so on without a word of complaining. Wat's attire was not now such as that he had donned to visit my Lady Wellwood. It was but of stout hodden grey and a checked plaid like the rest.
So we mounted shoulder after shoulder of heathery hillside, like vessels that labour over endless billows of the sea against a head wind. The thunder cloud which seemed to brood upon the outer circle of the hills, and arch over the country of Macaterick and the Star, now grumbled nearer and louder. Not seldom there came a fierce, white, wimpling flash, and the encompassing mountains seemed ready to burn up in the glare. Then ensued darkness blacker than ever, and the thunder shaking the world, as though it had been an ill-builded house-place with skillets and pans clattering on the wall.
We had been thus walking for some while, bearing breast to the brae all the time, and leaning forward even as a horse leans to its collar. We came in time near to the height of the pass. We could not see a yard before us. But suddenly we felt the ground begin to level in front; and lo! in a moment we were in the throat of the defile, with the hills black above us on either side. Suddenly there came a terrible white flash of lightning, brighter and longer continued than any we had seen. The very air seemed to grow blue-black like indigo. The thunder tore the heavens, galloping without ceasing. Flash followed rending flash. Immediately before us on a hillock we saw a wondrous sight. There sat Gash Gibbie, the mis-shaped idiot, crouched squat like a toad, at the head of a woman who lay with her arms straight at her sides, as though stretched for burial.
As we stood illumined against the murky blackness of the pass, the monstrous thing caught sight of us, and waved his hands, dancing meantime (as it seemed) upon spindles of legs. How he had come so far and so swiftly on such a night I cannot tell. But without doubt, there he was on the highest rock of the pass, with the dead woman stretched at his feet, and the fitful blue gleam of the lightning playing about him. And I warrant you it was not a comely or a canny sight.
‘Come ye here,’ cried the idiot lad, wavering above us as though he were dancing in the reek of the nether pit, ‘an' see what Yon has done to my mither. I aye telled her how it wad be. It doesna do to strive wi' Yon. For Yon can gie ye your paiks so brave and easy. But my mither, she wad never hear reason, and so there she lies, dead streeked in the 'Nick o' the Deid Wife.' YON has riven the life frae my mither!’
We were close at his side by this time, and we saw an irksome sight, that shook our nerves more than the thunder. A woman of desperately evil countenance lay looking past us, her eyes fixed with an expression of bitter wrath and scorn upon the black heavens. Her face and hands were stained of a deep crimson colour, either by the visitation of God or made to seem so by the flickering flame of wild-fire that played about us.
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men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.