CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE
KATE OF THE DARK BROWS
Betimes we came to a little row of white cottages deep in the wood, with only a green clearing at the door, and the trees swaying broad branches over the roof.
Here we washed ourselves, and Wat set to shaving me and cutting my hair close, in order that if necessary I might wear a wig. Then we went into the gardens, where we found the chief gardener of Balmaghie, whose name was Samuel Irving.
Samuel was a grave man with a very long upper lip, which gave him a sour and discontented expression, but secretly he was a good man and a great favourer of the hill-folk. Also he was very upright and well-doing in the matters of seeds and fruits and perquisites, and greatly in favour with his master, Mr. Roger McGhie.
So we set out much refreshed, and were going by a path through the woods, when suddenly who should come upon us at a turn but Kate McGhie. Wat ran to her to take her hands, but she gave him the go-by with the single frugal favour of a saucy glance. ‘Strangers first!’ she said, and so came forward and greeted me.
‘You are welcome to Balmaghie, William Gordon,’ she said. ‘I would you came as guest, and not as servitor; but some day I know you shall enter by the front door.’
She glanced round with a questioning air. Wat was standing half turned away, very haughty in his demeanour.
Kate McGhie looked towards him. She was in truth a comely maid—for one that is black of favour.
‘Now you may come,’ she said.
He seemed as if he would refuse and turn away. But she looked fixedly at him, defying him with her eyes to do it, and after a moment's battle of regards he came slowly towards us.
‘Come nearer!’ she commanded imperiously.
He came up with his eyes kindling. I think that no less than kissing was in his mind, and that for a moment he thought that she might permit it.
But suddenly she drew herself proudly away, and her look was disdainful and no doubt hard to be borne.
‘Are these fit manners from a servant?’ she said. ‘They that eat the meat and sit below the salt, must keep the distance.’
Wat's countenance fell in a moment. I never saw one with so many ups and down in such short space. The allures and whimsies of this young she-slip made him alternately sulk and brighten like an April day.
‘Kate!’ he began to say, in the uncertain tone of a petitioner.
‘Mistress Katherine McGhie, if you please!’ said she, dropping him a courtly courtesy.
‘Have you forgotten quite?’ Wat said.
‘Ah,’ she said, ‘it is you who have forgotten. You were not the gardener then. I do not allow gardeners to kiss me—unless my hand on Sundays when their faces are more than ordinarily clean. Would you like to have that, Heather Jock?’
And she held out the back of her hand.
The silly fellow coloured to his brow, and was for turning away with his head very much in the air.
But she ran after him, and took him by the hand.
Then he would have caught her about with his arms, but she escaped out of them lightly as a bird.
‘Na, na, Lochinvar,’ she cried merrily, in the common speech. ‘That is as muckle as is good for you’—she looked at him with the light of attraction in her eyes— ‘afore folk,’ she added, with a glance at him that I could not fathom.
Nevertheless, I saw for the first time all that was between them. So with no more said, Kate fled fleet-foot down the path towards the great house, which we could see standing grey and massive at the end of the avenue of beeches.
‘There's a lass by yon burnside that will do as muckle for you; but dinna bide to speer her leave!’ she cried to me over her shoulder, a word which it was hard to understand.
I asked Wat, who stood staring after her in a kind of wrapt adoration, what she could mean.
He gazed at me, as if he did not see what kind of animal was making the noise like talking. I am sure that for the time he knew me not from John Knox.
‘What did she mean?’ I asked him.
‘Mean!’ said he, ‘mean…’ speaking vaguely as one in a swither.
‘You are heady and moidered with not getting a kiss from a lass,’ said I, with, I grant, some little spite.
‘Did she ever kiss you?’ cried he, looking truculently at me.
‘Nay!’ said I bluntly, for indeed the thing was not in my thought.
‘Then you ken naught about it. You had better hold your wheesht!’
He stood so long thinking, sometimes giving his thigh a little slap, like one that has suddenly remembered something pleasant which he had forgotten, that I was near coming away in disgust and leaving the fool, when I remembered that I knew not where to go.
In a while he came to himself somewhat, and I told him what Kate McGhie had said to me over her shoulder.
‘Did Kate say that?’ he cried. ‘She could surely not have said all that and I not hear her.’
‘Out, you fool,’ I said, for so of custom I spoke to him, being my cousin and playmate. ‘You had other matter to think of. Say it she did.’
He repeated the words which I told him, and I declare even the sound of them seemed to be in danger of throwing him into another rhapsody.
But at last he said, suddenly, ‘Oh, I ken what she means…’ And he drew a long breath. ‘I suppose we had better go down to the water side. She will not come out again, if we wait all night.’ And he went some way along the avenue and looked long and hard at one heavy-browed window of the old house which seemed to be winking at us.
It is a strange thing how love affects different people. You never can tell beforehand how it will be. I could not have believed that the presence of a forward lass with black eyebrows could have made a moonstruck fool of Wildcat Wat of Lochinvar.
He still stood and looked at the window till my patience was ended.
‘Come on, man,’ I cried. ‘I declare you are not Heather Jock, as she called you, but Heather Jackass!’
At another time he would have knocked my head off, but now my jesting affected him no more than a sermon. And this I took to be the worst sign of all.
‘Well, come on then,’ he said. ‘You are surely in an accursed sweat of haste tonight!’
And we took our way down to the water side, having wasted more than an hour. We had not advanced far down the pillared avenue of the beech trees, when suddenly we came in sight of Maisie Lennox. She was coming slowly towards us along one of the forest roads. At the same time I saw my mother, walking away from me down a path which led along the side of the Dee water. She had her back to me, and was going slowly with her head down. To my shame I ran to meet Maisie Lennox. But first ere I reached her she said quietly to me, ‘Have you not seen your mother?’
‘Aye,’ answered I. ‘She has gone down the road to the water side.’
‘Then let no greeting come before your mother's,’ she said, looking very ill-pleased at me as I ran forward to take her hand.
So with a flea in my ear I turned me about and went off, somewhat shamed as you may believe, to find my mother. When I got back to the path on which I had seen her, I left Wat far behind and ran after my mother, calling loudly to her.
At the sound of my voice she turned and held up her hands.
‘Willie, boy!’ she cried.
And in a moment she had me in her arms, crooning over me and making much of me. She told me also, when she had time to look well at me, that I was much better in health than when I had lain in the well-house of Earlstoun.
‘And you came first to see your old mother. That was like my ain Willie!’ she said, a word which made me ashamed. So I had no answer to make, though nevertheless I took the credit of the action as much by silence as by speech.
Then Maisie Lennox came through the wood, and demeaning herself right soberly, she held out her hand.
‘Did you not see William before?’ asked my mother, looking from one to the other of us.
‘Only at a distance, on his way to you,’ said Maisie, speaking in her demure way.
It was in the little holding of Boatcroft by the side of the Dee, and among the water meadows which gird the broad stream, that we found my mother, Maisie Lennox, and little Margaret Wilson snugly settled. Their position here was not one to be despised. They were safe for the time being at least, upon the property of Roger McGhie. Every day the old man passed their loaning-end. And though he knew that by rights only a herd should live at the Boatcroft, yet he made no complaint nor asked any question for conscience' sake, when he saw my mother with Maisie Lennox at her elbow, or little Margaret of Glen Vernock moving about the little steading.
In the evening it fell to me to make my first endeavours at waiting at table, for though women were safe enough anywhere on the estate, Balmaghie was not judged to be secure for me except within the house itself.
So my mother gave me a great many cautions about how I should demean myself, and how to be silent and mannerly when I handed the dishes.
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men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.