CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
The well-house was indeed a strait place, but my mother had gotten one of our retainers to put therein a little truckle bedstead and bedding, so that I was none so evilly bestowed. This man, whom she had perforce to trust, was not one of our ancients, but only a stranger that had recently come into the country and taken service with us. He had been a soldier and had even served in His Majesty's Guards. But, being a Covenanter at heart, he had left the service at the peril of his life and come again to the north. His name was Patrick Laing, and he came of decent folk over about Nithsdale. He was in high favour with the garrison because of his feats of strength; but he had to keep carefully out of the sight of Tam Dalzyell, Grier of Lag, and the old officers who remembered him in the days when he had been a sergeant with the King's colours. Also he was the only man that could keep steeks with John Scarlet at the sword play, and I longed rarely to see him try a bout with Wat of Lochinvar himself.
Often at night I had converse with him, when the soldiers were not returned and it was safe for him to come to see me. Here I lay long prostrate with the low fever or ague that had taken me after Ayrsmoss. But because I was in my own country and within cry of my mother and Maisie Lennox, I minded my imprisonment not so much as one might think.
My mother came not often, for she was closely watched in her incomings and outgoings. But every eventide Maisie Lennox brought me what she could lay hands upon for my support.
As I grew whole we had much merriment, when she told me of the straits she was often in to get slipping away, without betraying the object of her solicitude.
The two eldest of my brother Sandy's bairns were a boy of seven and a girl of eight, and in a house where the soldiers took the most and the best, there was sometimes but scant fare for the younger folk.
Now none of the serving folk or even of the family knew that I was in the neighbourhood, saving only my mother, Maisie of the Duchrae, and Patrick Laing. To tell more people was to risk a discovery, which meant not less than a stretched tow rope for my neck, and that speedily.
Of all Sandy's bairns little Jock was the merriest and the worst, and of him Maisie had many stories to tell me, making merry when she brought me my piece in the twilight.
‘You are getting me a terrible name for a great eater,’ she said. ‘It was but this day at dinner time that Jock cried out, 'Whatna daft-like chuckie hen! It's gotten twa wings but only ae leg!' For I had hidden the other on my lap for you. That caused much merriment, for we all laughed to think of a chuckie hopping and standing upon but one leg. Yet because Cornet Graham was there, we had all to laugh somewhat carefully, and pass the matter off with a jest.’
‘On another occasion,’ said Maisie, ‘when half a dozen eggs could not be found, little Jock cried out, 'The ae-legged chuckie wull be clockin' them!' And this caused more merriment.’
Such tales as these Maisie Lennox told me in the quiet of the gloaming, when I abode still in the well-house chamber, and only the drip, drip of the water at the bottom came to us. It was strange and pleasant for me to lie there and hear her kind low voice telling me humoursome tales of what had befallen during the day.
Jean Hamilton, Sandy's wife, came but once to see me, and gave me much religious advice. She was ever a great woman for experiences, being by nature one of those who insist that all shall be exactly of her pattern, a thing which I saw no hope of—nor yet greatly desired.
‘My life is all sin,’ she would say, ‘if it were but to peel the bark off a kail castock and eat, I sin in the doing of it!’
‘That would show a great want of sense, at any gate, gin ye could get better meat to eat!’ I replied, for the woman's yatter, yatter easily vexed me, being still weak. Also, I wished greatly for her to be gone, and for Maisie or my mother to come to me.
And again I remember that she said (for she was a good woman, but of the troublesome kind that ofttimes do more ill than good—at least when one is tired and cannot escape them), ‘William, I fear you never have had the grip o' the fundamentals that Sandy hath. Take care that you suffer not with the saints, and yet come to your end as a man of wrath!’
Now this I thought to be an ill-timed saying, considering that I had ridden at Ayrsmoss while Sandy was braw and snug in the Lowlands of Holland, disputing in Master Brackel's chamber at Leeuwarden with Rob Hamilton, her brother, concerning declarations and protests.
‘As for me,’ she went on, liking methinks the sound of her own voice, ‘that is, for my corps, I care not gin it were cast up to the heaven, and keppit upon iron graips, so that my soul had peace!’
‘I think that I would even be content to lie at the bottom of this well if I might have peace!’ said I, for the spirit within me was jangled and easily set on edge with her corncrake crying.
‘William, William,’ she said, ‘I fear greatly you are yet in the bond of iniquity! I do but waste my time with you!’
Saying which, she let herself down on the well-edge, lifted her pails and was gone.
In a little came Maisie Lennox with other two buckets. The sentinel, if he thought at all, must have set us down for wondrous clean folk about Earlstoun during these days; but all passed off easily and no notice taken.
Then when Maisie came, it was a joy to greet her, for she was as a friend—yes, as David to Jonathan—exceeding pleasant to me. As I have often said, I am not a man to take the eyes of women, and never looked to be loved by woman other than my mother. But for all that, I liked to think about love, and to picture what manner of man he should be to whom Maisie Lennox would let all her heart go out.
Every night she came in briskly, laughing at having to pull herself up into the well-chamber, and ever with some new story of cheer to tell me.
‘Ken ye what little Jock said this day?’ she asked ere her head was well above the trap-door.
I told her that I knew not, but was eager to hear, for that I ever counted Jock the best bairn in all the coupe.
‘It was at dinner,’ she said, taking a dish from under her apron, ‘and I minded that when you were with us at the Duchrae, you kept a continual crying for burn-trout. These being served for a first course, I watched for a time when the servants were taken up at the chamber-end with their serving, and when the bairns were busy with their noses at their plates.
‘Then, when none observed, I whipped the most part of the dainty platterful of fish underneath my apron and sat very still and innocent, picking at the bones on my plate.
‘Soon little Jock looked up. 'O mither, mither!' he cried, 'wull ye please to look at Aunty Maisie, she has eaten the hale kane o' trootses, banes, plate an' a', while we were suppin' our broth.'
‘At this there was great wonderment, and all the children came about, expecting to see me come to some hurt by so mighty a meal.
‘'Tell me,' cried Jock, being ever the foremost, 'how far doon the platter has gotten. Are ye sure it is not sticking somewhere by the road?'
‘All the time I sat with the half score of burn-trout on my lap covered by my apron, and it was only by pretending I had burned myself, that I got them at last safe out of the room.’
With such tales she pleased me, winning my heart all the while, causing me to forget my weakness, and to think the nights not long when I lay awake listening to the piets and hoolets crying about me in the ancient woods of Earlstoun.
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men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.