SANDY GORDON COMES OVER THE HILL ALL ALONE
The House of Earlstoun sits bonny above the water side, and there are few fairer waters in this land than the Ken water. Also it looks its bonniest in the early morning when the dew is on all sides, and a stillness like the peace of God lies on the place. I do not expect the Kingdom of Heaven very much to surpass Earlstoun on a Sabbath morning in June when the bees are in the roses. And, indeed, I shall be well content with that.
But there was no peace in Earlstoun that morning—no, nor for many a morning to come. I was at the door watching for their coming, before ever a grouse cock stirred among the short brown heather on the side of Ardoch Hill. I told my mother over and over that without doubt Sandy was bringing father home.
‘Gay Garland was aye a reesty beast!’ I said. ‘Doubtless he started when my faither had his foot in the stirrup, and has come hame by himsel'!’
But I said nothing about the finger in the holster.
‘Anither beast micht,’ said my mother, looking wistfully from the little window on the stair, from which she did not stir, ‘but never Gay Garland!’
And right well I knew she spake the truth. Gay Garland had carried my father over long to reest with him at the hinderend.
‘Can ye no see them?’ cried my mother again, from the room where ordinarily she sat.
Even Jean Hamilton, who had been but three years a wife, was not as restless that fair morning of midsummer as my mother, for she had her babe at her breast. In which she was the happier, because when he cried, at least she had something to think about.
Three weeks before, in the midst of the sunny days of that noble June, my father, William Gordon of Airds and Earlstoun, and my elder brother Alexander had ridden away to fight against King Charles. It took a long arm in those days to strive with the Stuarts. And as I saw them ride over the brae with thirty Glenkens blue bonnets at their tail, I knew that I was looking upon the beginning of the ruin of our house. Yet I went and hid my face and raged, because I was not permitted to ride along with them, nor to carry the Banner of Blue which my mother the Lady of Earlstoun, and Jean Hamilton, Sandy's wife, had broidered for them—with words that stirred the heart lettered fair upon it in threads of gold, and an Andrew's cross of white laid on the bonny blue of its folds.
My mother would have added an open Bible on the division beneath, but my father forbade.
‘A sword, gin ye like, but no Bible!’ he said.
So they rode away, and I, that was called William Gordon for my father, clenched hands and wept because that I was not counted worthy to ride with them. But I was never strong, ever since Maisie Lennox and I rode home from the Tinklers' Loup; and my mother said always that she had more trouble at the rearing of me than with all her cleckin'. By which she meant, as one might say, her brood of chickens.
To me my father cried out as he rode out of the yard:
‘Abide, William, and look to your mother—and see that the beasts get their fodder, for you are the master of Earlstoun till I return.’
‘An' ye can help Jean to sew her bairn-clouts!’ cried my brother Sandy, whom we called the Bull, in that great voice of his which could cry from Ardoch to Lochinvar over leagues of heather.
And I, who heard him with the water standing in my eyes because they were going out in their war-gear while I had to bide at home,—could have clouted him with a stone as he sat his horse, smiling and shaving the back of his hand with his Andrea Ferrara to try its edge.
O well ken I that he was a great fighter and Covenant man, and did ten times greater things than I, an ill-grown crowl, can ever lay my name to. But nevertheless, such was the hatred I felt at the time towards him, being my brother and thus flouting me.
But with us, as I have said, there abode our cousin Maisie Lennox from the Duchrae, grown now into a douce and sonsy lass, with hair that was like spun gold when the sun shone upon it. For the rest, her face rather wanted colour, not having in it—by reason of her anxiety for her father, and it may be also by the nature of her complexion—so much of red as the faces of Jean Hamilton and other of our country lasses. But because she was my comrade, I saw naught awanting, nor thought of red or pale, since she was indeed Maisie Lennox and my friend and gossip of these many years.
Also in some sort she had become a companion for my mother, for she had a sedate and dependable way with her, solate and wise beyond her years.
‘She is not like a flichty young body aboot a hoose,’ said my mother.
But in this I differed, yet said nothing. For no one could have been to me what young Maisie of the Duchrae was.
After Sandy and my father had ridden away, and I that was left to keep the house, went about with a hanging head because I had not ridden also, Maisie Lennox grew more than ordinarily kind. Never had a feckless lad like me, such a friend as Maisie of the Duchrae. It was far beyond that love which the maids chatter about, and run out to the stackyard in the gloaming to find—oft to their sorrow, poor silly hempies.
Yet Maisie May and I greeted in the morning without observance, but rather as brothers whom night has not parted. In the day we spoke but seldom, save to ask what might be needful, as the day's darg and duty drifted us together. But at even, standing silent, we watched the light fade from the hills of the west and gather behind those of the east. And I knew that without speech her heart was trying to comfort mine, because I had not been judged worthy to ride for the Covenants with her father and mine, and in especial because Sandy had openly flouted me before her. This was very precious to me and kept up my manhood in mine own eyes—a service far above rubies.
Thus they rode away and left the house of the Earlstoun as empty and unfriendly as a barn in hay harvest. From that day forward we spent as much time looking out over the moor from the house, as we did at our appointed tasks. I have already told of the happenings of the night of the twenty-second of June, and of my mother's strange behaviour—which, indeed, was very far from her wont. For she seldom showed her heart to my father, but rather faulted him and kept him at a stick's end, especially when he came heedlessly into her clean-swept rooms with his great moss-splashed riding-boots.
Of this time I have one thing more to tell. It was between the hours of ten and eleven of the day following this strange night, that my mother, having set all her house maidens to their tasks with her ordinary care and discretion, took down the bake-board and hung the girdle above a clear red fire of peat. Sometimes she did this herself, especially when my father was from home. For she was a master baker, and my father often vowed that he would have her made the deacon of the trade in Dumfries, where he had a house. He was indeed mortally fond of her girdle-cakes, and had wheaten flour ground fine at a distant mill for the purpose of making them.
‘Mary Hope,’ he used to say to her in his daffing way, ‘your scones are better than your father's law. I wonder wha learned ye to bake aboot Craigieha'—tho', I grant, mony's the puir man the faither o' ye has keepit braw and het on a girdle, while he stirred him aboot wi' his tongue.’
This he said because my mother was a daughter of my Lord Hope of Craigiehall, who had been President of the Court of Session in his time, and a very notable greatman in the State.
So, as I say, this day she set to the baking early, and it went to my heart when I saw she was making the wheaten cakes raised with sour buttermilk that were my father's favourites.
She had not been at it long before in came Jock o' the Garpel, hot-foot from the hill.
‘Maister Alexander!’ he cried, panting and broken-winded with haste, ‘Maister Alexander is comin' ower the Brae!’
There was silence in the wide kitchen for a moment, only the sound of my mother's roller being heard, ‘dunt-dunting’ on the dough.
‘Is he by his lane?’ asked my mother without raising her head from the bake-board.
‘Ay,’ said Jock o' the Garpel, ‘a' by his lane. No a man rides ahint him.’
And again there was silence in the wide house of Earlstoun.
My mother went to the girdle to turn the wheaten cakes that were my father's favourites, and as she bent over the fire, there was a sound as if rain-drops were falling and birsling upon the hot girdle. But it was only the water running down my mother's cheeks for the love of her youth, because now her last hope was fairly gone.
Then in the middle of her turning she drew the girdle off the fire, not hastily, but with care and composedness.
‘I'll bake nae mair,’ she cried, ‘Sandy has come ower the hill his lane!’
And I caught my mother in my arms.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.