CHAPTER THIRTY NINE
THE BOWER OF THE STAR
Day by day I tended him as gently as I could, till in the cave our provisions were well-nigh spent. Then, one grey morning I took my pistol to go out on the hillside to see if I could shoot aught to eat. But because of my nervousness, or other cause, I could at that time do nothing. Indeed, not so much as a whaup came near me on that great, wide, dappled hill.
I saw a hill fox rise and run. He was a fine beast and very red, and held his tail nobly behind him like a flag. But, hardly beset as we were, we could with difficulty have eaten fox, even had I been able to shoot him, which I was not.
The day passed slowly, the night came, and it went sore to my heart that I was able to do so little for the friend of one I loved. I saw that he would have mended readily enough, if he had received the right nutriment, which, alas! it seemed far out of my power to obtain. Yet in the morning, when I went to the mouth of the cave, lo! there, immediately to the right of me, on a bare place, were two great whaup eggs, broad-buttocked and splashed with black. I never was gladder to see food. It was late for the whaups to be breeding; and, indeed, they had mostly left the moorland by that time. But, nevertheless, it was manifest that Providence had bidden some bird, perhaps disappointed of an earlier brood or late mated, to come and lay the eggs before our door.
I bade Anton take the eggs by the ancient method of sucking—which he made shift to do, and was very greatly strengthened thereby. So every morning as long as we remained there, the wild bird laid an egg in the morning, which made the Covenanter's breakfast. This is but one of the daily marvels from the Lord which attended our progress. For whensoever those that have been through the perilous time come together, they recount these things to one another, and each has his like tale of preservation and protection to tell.
But that minds me of a strange thing. Once during the little while when I companied with the Compellers, it was my hap to meet with clattering John Crichton, that rank persecutor. And what was my surprise to hear that all his talk ran upon certain providential dreams he had had in the night time, by which there was revealed to him the hiding place of many of the ‘fanatics.’ Aye, and even the very place pointed out to him in the dream where it would be most convenient to compass their capturing. And this in due time he brought about, or said he did. But, for all that, I do not think that the company he was among set great store by his truthfulness. For after each wondrous story of adventure and second-sight they would roar with laughter, and say: ‘Well done, Crichton! Out with another one!’
After a day or two of this lack of food, it came suddenly to me what a dumbhead I was, to bide with an empty belly in a place where at least there must be plenty of fish near at hand. So I rose early from off my bed of heather tops, and betook me down to the river edge. It is nothing but a burn which they call the Eglin Lane, a long, bare water, slow and peaty, but with some trout of size in it. Also from the broads of Loch Macaterick, there came another burn with clearer sparkling water and much sand in the pools. There were trout in both, as one might see by stealing up to the edge of the brow and looking over quickly. But owing to the drought, there was water only in the pools of Eglin, and often but the smallest trickle beneath the stones.
I had a beauty out in a few moments; for so eager was I that I leaped into the burn just as I was, without so much as waiting to take off any of my garments. So in the pool there was a-rushing and a-chasing till I had him out on the grass, his speckled sides glinting bonny on the heather as he tossed himself briskly from side to side. I followed the burn down to the fork of the water that flows from Loch Macaterick, and fished all the pools in this manner. By that time I had enough for three meals at the least; or perhaps, considering the poor state of our appetites, for more than that. I put those we should not want that day into a pretty little fish-pond, which makes a kind of backwater on one of the burns springing down from the side of the Rig of the Star. And this was the beginning of the fish-pond which continued to supply us with food all the time we abode there.
While I was in the river bottom, it chanced that I looked up the great smooth slopes of the opposite hill, which is one of the range of Kells.
There is a little shaggy clump of trees on the bare side of it, and I could have sworn that among the trees I saw people stirring.
I could only think that the people there were wanderers like ourselves, or else spies sent to keep an eye on this wide, wild valley between the Garryhorn hill and the Spear of the Merrick.
So I came back to the cave no little dashed in spirit, in spite of my great successes with the trout. I said nothing about what I had seen to Auld Anton, for he was both weak and feverish. And though certainly mending, he was not yet able to move out into the sunshine and lie among the bracken, a thing which would have done him much good on these still warm days.
But I made a fire with heather and the roots of ancient trees, which in that strange wild desert stick out of the peat at every step. There I roasted the trout, of which Anton Lennox ate heartily. I think they had more relish to a sick man's palate than whaup eggs, even though these came to him as it were in a miraculous manner; while I had guddled the trout with my boots and breeks on.
When the meal was over, I bethought me that I should make an excuse, and steal away over to the side of the Meaull, to see what it might be that was stirring on that lonely brae-face. For save the scraggy scrunts of the rowan trees and birks that surround the cave, there was not a tree within sight, till the woods at the upper end of Loch Doon began to take the sun.
I carefully charged my pistols and told Anton how I proposed to go out to shoot mountain hares or other victual that I could see.
He did not say a word to bid me stay, but only advised me to keep very close to the cave. Because, once off the bosky face of the cliff, there was no saying what hidden eyes might spy me out. For Lag, he said, was certainly lying in hold at Garryhorn at that time, and Claverhouse himself was on the borders of the country. Concerning this last I knew better than he, and was much desirous that we could get Anton well enough to move further out of the reach of his formidable foes.
I started just when the heated haze of the afternoon was clearing with the first early-falling chill of even. The hills were casting shadows upon each other towards the Dungeon and Loch Enoch, where, in the wildest and most rugged country, some of the folk of the wilderness were in hiding.
As I went I heard the grey crow croak and the muckle corbie cry ‘Glonk,’ somewhere over by the Slock of the Hooden. They had got a lamb to themselves or a dead sheep belike. But to me it sounded like the gloating of the dragoons over some captured company of the poor wandering Presbyters. It seemed a strange thing for me, when I came to think of it, that I, the son of the Laird of Earlstoun, my mother, that had long time been the lady thereof, and my brother Sandy, that was now Earlstoun himself, should all be skipping and hiding like thieves, with the dragoons at our tail. Now this thought came not often to us, who were born during the low estate of the Scottish kirk. But when it did come, the thought was even more bitter to us, because we had no sustaining memories of her former high estate, nor remembered what God's kirk had been in Scotland from the year 1638 down to the weary coming of Charles Stuart and the down-sitting of the Drunken Parliament in the Black Year of Sixty.
But for all that I thought on these things as I went. Right carefully I kept the cover of every heather bush, peat hag, muckle grey granite stone, and waving clump of bracken. So that in no long space, by making a wide circuit, I came to look down upon the little clump of trees, where I had seen the figures moving, as I guddled the trout for our dinner in the reaches of the Eglin Lane.
Now, however, there seemed to be a great quietness all about the place, and the scanty trees did not so much as wave a branch in the still air of the afternoon.
Yet I saw, as it had been the waft of a jaypiet's wing among them, when I came over the steep rocks of the Hooden's Slock, and went to ford the Gala Lane—which like the other water was, by the action of the long dry year, sunken to no more than a chain of pools. But as I circled about and came behind the trees, there was, as I say, a great quiet. My heart went up and down like a man's hand at the flail in a barn. Yet for my unquiet, there was no great apparent reason. It might be, indeed, that the enemies had laid a snare for me, and that I was already as good as setting out for the Grassmarket, with the ladder and the rope before me, and the lad with the piebald coat at my tail. And this was a sore thought to me, for we Gordons are not of a race that take hanging lightly. We never had more religion than we could carry for comfort. Yet we always got our paiks for what little we had, on which side soever we might be. It is a strange thing that we should always have managed to come out undermost whichever party was on top, and of this I cannot tell the reason. On the other hand, the Kennedies trimmed their sails to the breeze as it blew, and were ever on the wave's crest. But then they were Ayrshiremen. And Ayr, it is well kenned, aye beats Galloway—that is, till it comes to the deadly bellyful of fighting.
Thus I communed with myself, ever drawing nearer to the clump of trees on the side of the Meaull, and murmuring good Protestant prayers, as if they had been no better than Mary's beads all the time.
As I came to the little gairy above the trees, I looked down, and from the verge of it I saw the strangest contrivance. It was a hut beside a tiny runlet of water—a kind of bower with the sides made of bog-oak stobs taken from the edges of the strands. The roof was daintily theeked with green rushes and withes, bound about with heather. Heather also was mingled with the thatching rushes, so that from a little distance the structure seemed to be part of the heath. I lay and watched to see what curious birds had made such a bower on the Star in the dark days. For such dainty carefulness was not the wont of us chiels of the Covenant, and I could not think that any of the rough-riders after us would so have spent their time. An inn yard, a pint stoup, and a well-cockered doxie were more to their liking, than plaiting the bonny heather into a puppet's house upon the hillside.
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men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.