GAY GARLAND COMES HOME SADDLE EMPTY
The night of the twenty-second of June, 1679, shall never be forgotten among us while Earlstoun House stands. It was the eve of the day whereon befell the weary leaguer of Bothwell when the enemy beset the Brig, and the good Blue Banner gat fyled and reddened with other dye-stuff than the brown moss-water. I mind it well, for I had grown to be man-muckle since the day on the Tinklers' Loup. After a day of heat there fell a night like pitch. A soughing wind went round the house and round the house, whispering and groping, like a forlorn ghost trying to find his way within.
If there was a shut eye in the great House of Earlstoun that night, it was neither mine nor my mother's. We lay and thought of them that were over the hill, striving for the Other King and the good cause. And our thoughts were prayers, though there was none to ‘take the Book’ in Earlstoun that night, for I was never gifted that way. So we bedded without sound of singing or voice of prayer, though I think Jean Hamilton had done it for the asking.
I lay in my naked bed and listened all the night with unshut eye. I could hear in my mother's room the boards creak as she rose every quarter hour and looked out into the rayless dark. Maisie Lennox of the Duchrae, old Anton's daughter, now a well grown lass, lay with her. And Sandy's young wife, Jean Hamilton, with her sucking bairn, was in the little angled chamber that opens off the turret stair near by.
It befell at the back of one, or mayhap betwixt that and two, that there came a sound at the nether door that affrighted us all.
‘Rise, William! Haste ye,’ cried my mother with great eagerness in her voice, coming to my door in the dark. ‘Your father is at the nether door, new lichted doon from off Gay Garland. Rise an' let him in!’
And as I sat up on my elbow and hearkened, I heard as clearly as now I hear the clock strike, the knocking of my father's riding-boots on the step of the outer door. For it was ever his wont, when he came that way, to knap his toes on the edge of the step, that the room floorings might not be defiled with the black peat soil which is commonest about the Earlstoun. I have heard my father tell it a thousand times in his pleasantry, how it was when my mother was a bride but newly come home and notionate, that she learned him these tricks. For otherwise his ways were not dainty, but rather careless—and it might be, even rough.
So, as I listened, I heard very clear outside the house the knocking of my father's feet, and the little hoast he always gave before he tirled at the pin to be let in, when he rode home late from Kirkcudbright. Hearing which we were greatly rejoiced, and I hasted to draw on my knee-breeks, crying ‘Bide a wee, faither, an' briskly I'll be wi' ye to let ye in!’
For I was a little lame, halting on one foot ever since the affair of Tinkler Marshall, though I think not to any noticeable extent.
My mother at the door of her chamber cried, ‘Haste ye, William, or I must run mysel'!’
For my father had made her promise that she would not go out of her chamber to meet him at the return, being easily touched in her breast with the night air.
So I hasted and ran down as I was, with my points all untied, and set wide open the door.
‘Faither!’ I cried as I undid the bolt and pushed the leaves of the door abroad, ‘Faither, ye are welcome hame!’ And I could hear my mother listening above, for his foot over the threshold. Yet he came not within, which was a wonder to me. So I went out upon the step of the nether door, but my father was not there. Only the same strange chill wind went round the house, soughing and moaning blindly as before, and a smoor of white fog blew like muirburn past the door.
Then my hair rose upon my head and the skin of my brow pricked, because I knew that strange portents were abroad that night.
‘What for does your faither no come ben the hoose to me?’ cried my mother impatiently from the stairhead. I could hear her clasping and unclasping her hands, for my ears are quick at taking sounds.
‘I think he must be gone to the stable with Gay Garland, to stall him beside Philiphaugh,’ I answered, for so my father's old white horse was named, because in his young days my father had been at that place on the day when Montrose and his Highlandmen got their settling. This is what I said to my mother, but indeed my thought was far other.
I lifted a loaded pistol that lay ever in the aumrie by the door-cheek and went off in the direction of the stable. The door was shut, but I undid the pin and went within. My father was not there. The horses were moving restlessly and lifting their feet uneasily as they do on ice or other kittle footing. Then of a truth I knew there was something more than canny abroad about Earlstoun that night, and that we should hear ill news or the morning. And when a bundle of reins slipped from the shelf and fell on my shoulder like a man's hand clapping on me unaware, I cried out like a frighted fowl and dropped almost to the ground. Yet though I am delicate and not overly well grown in my body, I do not count myself a coward; even though my brother Sandy's courage be not mine. ‘Blind-eye, hard-head’ was ever his sort, but I love to take my danger open-eyed and standing up—and as little of it as possible.
As I went back—which I did instantly, leaving the stable door swinging open—I heard my mother's voice again. She was calling aloud and the sound of her voice was yearning and full like that of a young woman.
‘William!’ she called, and again ‘William!’
Now though that is my name I knew full well that it was not to me, her son, that she called. For that is the voice a woman only uses to him who has been her man, and with her has drunk of the fountain of the joy of youth. Once on a time I shot an eagle on the Millyea, and his mate came and called him even thus, with a voice that was as soft as that of a cushie dove crooning in the tall trees in the early summer, till I could have wept for sorrow at my deed.
Then as I went in, I came upon my mother a step or two from the open door, groping with her arms wide in the darkness.
‘Oh,’ she cried, ‘William, my William, the Lord be thankit!’ and she clasped me to her heart.
But in a moment she flung me from her.
‘Oh! it's you,’ she said bitterly, and went within without another word, her harshness jangling on my heart.
Yet I understood, for my mother was always greatly set on my father. And once when in jest we teased her to try her, telling her the story of the pious Æneas, and asking her to prophesy to us which one of us she would lift, if so it was that the house of Earlstoun were in a lowe.
‘Faith,’ said my mother, ‘I wad tak' your faither on my back, gin a' the lave o' ye had to bide and burn!’
So it was ever with my mother. She was my father's sweetheart to her latest hour.
But when I went in I found her sitting, sheet-white and trembling on the settle.
‘What's ta'en ye, mither?’ I said to her, putting a shawl about her.
‘O my man, my bonny man,’ she said, ‘there's nane to steek your e'en the nicht! An' Mary Gordon maun lie her leesome lane for evermair!’
‘Hoot, mither,’ I said, ‘speak not so. My faither will come his ways hame i' the mornin' nae doot, wi' a' the lads o' the Kenside clatterin' ahint him. Sandy is wi' him, ye ken.’
‘Na,’ she said calmly enough, but as one who has other informations, ‘Sandy is no wi' him. Sandy gaed through the battle wi' his heid doon and his sword rinnin' reed. I see them a' broken—a' the pride o' the West, an' the dragoons are riding here an' there amang them, an' haggin' them doon. But your faither I canna see—I canna see my man——’
‘Mither,’ I said, mostly, I think, for something to say, ‘Mind the Guid Cause!’
She flung her hands abroad with a fine gesture as of scorn. ‘What cause is guid that twines a woman frae her ain man—an' we had been the gither three-an'-thirty year!’
In a little I got her to lie down, but the most simple may understand how much more sleep there was in Earlstoun that night. Yet though we listened with all our ears, we heard no other sound than just that blind and unkindly wind reestling and soughing about the house, groping at the doors and trying the lattices. Not a footstep went across the courtyard, not the cry of a bird came over the moors, till behind the barren ridges of the east the morning broke.
Then when in the grey and growing light I went down and again opened the door, lo! there with his nose against the latchet hasp was Gay Garland, my father's war-horse. He stood and trembled in every limb. He was covered with the lair of the moss-hags, wherein he had sunk to the girths. But on his saddle leather, towards the left side, there was a broad splash of blood which had run down to the stirrup iron; and in the holster on that side, where the great pistol ought to have been, a thing yet more fearsome—a man's bloody forefinger, taken off above the second joint with a clean drawing cut.
My mother came down the turret stair, fully dressed, and with her company gown upon her. Yet when she saw Gay Garland standing there at the door with his head between his knees, she did not seem to be astonished or afraid, as she had been during the night. She came near to him and laid a hand on his neck.
‘Puir beast,’ she said, ‘ye have had sore travel. Take him to the stable for water and corn, and bid Jock o' the Garpel rise.’
The dark shades of the night were flown away, and my mother now spoke quietly and firmly as was her wont. Much in times bygone had we spoken about sufferings in the House of Earlstoun, and, lo! now they were come home to our own door.
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men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.