When I came to myself I was lying in a pleasant room with a great flood of sunlight drifting through the window. My brain was so confused that it was many minutes ere I could guess in which part of the earth I was laid. My first thought was that I was back in France, and I rejoiced with a great gladness; but as my wits cleared the past came back by degrees, till I had it plain before me, from my setting-out to my fainting at the door. Clearly I was in the house where I had arrived on the even of yesterday.
I stirred, and found my weakness gone, and my health, save for some giddiness in the head, quite recovered. This was ever the way of our family, who may be in the last desperation one day and all alive and active the next. Our frames are like the old grape tendrils, slim, but tough as whipcord.
At my first movement someone arose from another part of the room and came forward. I looked with curiosity, and found that it was a girl, who brought me some strengthening food-stuff in a bowl. The sunlight smote her full in the face and set her hair all aglow, as if she were the Madonna. I could not see her well, but, as she bent over me, she seemed tall and lithe and pretty to look upon.
“How feel you?” she asked, in a strange, soft accent, speaking the pure English, but with a curious turn in her voice. “I trust you are better of your ailment.”
“Yes, that I am,” I said briskly, for I was ashamed to be lying there in good health, “and I would thank you, mademoiselle, for your courtesy to a stranger.”
“Nay, nay,” she cried, “’twas but common humanity. You were sore spent last night, both man and horse. Had you traveled far? But no,” she added hastily, seeing me about to plunge into a narrative; “your tale will keep. I cannot have you making yourself ill again. You had better bide still a little longer.” And with a deft hand she arranged the pillows and was gone.
For some time I lay in a pleasing inaction. ’Twas plain I had fallen among gentlefolk, and I blessed the good fortune which had led me to the place. Here I might find one to hear my tale and help me in my ill-luck. At any rate for the present I was in a good place, and when one has been living in a nightmare, the present has the major part in his thoughts. With this I fell asleep again, for I was still somewhat wearied in body.
When I awoke ’twas late afternoon. The evil weather seemed to have gone, for the sun was bright and the sky clear with the mellowness of approaching even. The girl came again and asked me how I fared. “For,” said she, “perhaps you wish to rise, if you are stronger. Your clothes were sadly wet and torn when we got you to bed last night, so my father has bade me ask you to accept of another suit till your own may be in better order. See, I have laid them out for you, if you will put them on.” And again, ere I could thank her, she was gone.
I was surprised and somewhat affected by this crowning kindness, and at the sight of so much care for a stranger whose very name was unknown. I longed to meet at once with the men of the house, so I sprung up and drew the clothes toward me. They were of rough gray cloth, very strong and warm, and fitting a man a little above the ordinary height, of such stature as mine is. It did not take me many minutes to dress, and when once more I found myself arrayed in wholesome garments I felt my spirit returning, and with it came hope, and a kindlier outlook on the world.
No one appeared, so I opened my chamber door and found myself at the head of a staircase, which turned steeply down almost from the threshold. A great window illumined it, and many black-framed pictures hung on the walls adown it. At the foot there was a hall, broad and low in the roof, whence some two or three doors opened. Sounds of men in conversation came from one, so I judged it wise to turn there. With much curiosity I lifted the latch and entered unbidden.
’Twas a little room, well furnished, and stocked to the very ceiling with books. A fire burned on the hearth, by which sat two men talking. They rose to their feet as I entered, and I marked them well. One was an elderly man of maybe sixty years, with a bend in his back as if from study. His face was narrow and kindly; blue eyes, like a Northman, a thin, twitching lip, and hair well turned to silver. His companion was scarce less notable — a big, comely man, dressed half in the fashion of a soldier, yet with the air of one little versed in cities. I love to be guessing a man’s station from his looks, and ere I had glanced him over, I had set him down in my mind as a country laird, as these folk call it. Both greeted me courteously, and then, as I advanced, were silent, as if waiting for me to give some account of myself.
“I have come to thank you for your kindness,” said I awkwardly, “and to let you know something of myself, for ’tis ill to be harboring folk without names or dwelling.”
“Tush!” said the younger; “‘twere a barbarity to leave anyone without, so travel-worn as you. The Levite in the Scriptures did no worse. But how feel you now? I trust your fatigue is gone.”
“I thank you a thousand times for your kindness. Would I knew how to repay it!”
“Nay, young man,” said the elder, “give thanks not to us, but to the Lord who led you to this place. The moors are hard bedding, and right glad I am that you fell in with us here. ’Tis seldom we have a stranger with us, since my brother at Drumlanrig died in the spring o’ last year. But I trust you are better, and that Anne has looked after you well. A maid is a blessing to sick folk, if a weariness to the hale.”
“You speak truly,” I said, “a maid is a blessing to the sick. ’Tis sweet to be well tended when you have fared hardly for days. Your kindness has set me at peace with the world again. Yesterday all was black before me, and now, I bethink me, I see a little ray of light.”
“’Twas a good work,” said the old man, “to give you hope and set you right with yourself, if so chance we have done it. What saith the wise man, ‘He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down and without walls’? But whence have you come? We would hear your story.”
So I told them the whole tale of my wanderings, from my coming to Kennedy to my fainting fit at their own threshold. At the story of my quarrel they listened eagerly, and I could mark their eyes flashing, and as I spake of my sufferings in the desert I could see sympathy in their faces. When I concluded, neither spake for a little, till the elder man broke silence with:
“May God bless and protect you in all your goings! Well I see that you are of the upright in heart. It makes me blithe to have you in my house.”
The younger said nothing but rose and came to me.
“M. de Rohaine,” he said, speaking my name badly, “give me your hand. I honor you for a gentleman and a man of feeling.”
“And I am glad to give it you,” said I, and we clasped hands and looked into each other’s eyes. Then we stepped back well satisfied. For myself I love to meet a man, and in the great-limbed young fellow before me I found one to my liking.
“And now I must tell you of ourselves,” said the old man, “for ’tis fitting that a guest should know his entertainers. This is the manse of Lindean, and I am the unworthy man, Ephraim Lambert, whom God hath appointed to watch over his flock in this place. Sore, sore are we troubled by evil men, such as you have known; and my folk, from dwelling in decent cots, have to hide in peat-hags and the caves of the hills. The Lord’s hand is heavy upon this country; ’tis a time of trial, a passing through the furnace. God grant we be not found faithless! This home is still left to us, and thankful we should be for it; and I demand that you dwell with us till you have settled on your course. This man,” he went on, laying his hand on the shoulder of the younger, “is Master Henry Semple of Clachlands, a fine inheritance, all ridden and rieved by these devils on earth, Captain Keith’s dragoons. Henry is of our belief, and a man of such mettle that the Privy Council was fain to send down a quartering of soldiers to bide in his house and devour his substance. ’Twas a thing no decent man could thole, so off he comes here to keep us company till the wind blows by. If you look out of the window over by the side of yon rig of hill, ye’ll get a glimmer of Clachlands chimneys, reeking with the smoke of their evil preparations. Ay, ay, lads, burn you your peats and fill up the fire with logs till the vent’s choked, but you’ll burn brawly yourselves some fine day, when your master gives you your wages.”
He looked out as he spoke, and into his kindly eyes came a gleam of such anger and decision as quite transfigured his face and made it seem more like that of a troop captain than a peaceful minister.
And now Master Semple spoke up: “God send, sir, they suffer for no worse a crime than burning my peats and fire-wood. I should count myself a sorry fellow if I made any complaint about a little visitation, when the hand of the Lord is smiting so sorely among my fellows. I could take shame to myself every time I eat good food or sleep in a decent bed, to think of better men creeping aneath the lang heather like etherts, or shivering on the cauld hill-side. There’ll be no such doings in your land, M. de Rohaine? I’ve heard tell of folk there like us, dwelling in the hills to escape the abominations of Rome. But perhaps,” and he hesitated, “you are not of them?”
“No,” said I, “I am of your enemies by upbringing; but I dearly love a brave man, whereever I meet him. ’Tis poor religion, say I, which would lead one to see no virtue in those of another belief. There is one God above all.”
“Ay, you speak truly,” said the old man. “He has made of one blood all the nations of the earth. But I yearn to see you of a better way of thinking. Mayhap I may yet show you your errors?”
“I thank you, but I hold by ‘every man to his upbringing.’ Each man to the creed of his birth. ’Tis a poor thing to be changing on any pretext. For, look you, God, who appointed a man his place of birth, set him his religion with it, and I hold if he but stick to it he is not far in error.”
I spoke warmly, but in truth I had thought all too little about such things. One who has to fight his way among men and live hardly, has, of necessity, little time for his devotions, and if he but live cleanly, his part is well done. Mon Dieu! Who will gainsay me?
“I fear your logic is faulty,” said Master Semple, “but it is mighty inhospitable to be arguing with a guest. See, here Anne comes with the lamp, and supper will soon be ready.”
The girl came in as he spake, bearing a great lamp, which she placed on a high shelf, and set about laying the table for supper. I had noticed her little at first sight, for I was never given to staring at maids; but now, as she moved about, I found myself ever watching her. The ruddy firelight striving with the serene glow of the lamp met and flickered about her face and hair. She was somewhat brown in skin, like a country maiden; but there was no semblance of rusticity in her fair features and deep brown eyes. Her hair hung over her neck as brown as the soft fur of a squirrel, and the fire filled it with fantastic shadows. She was singularly graceful in figure, moving through the room and bending over the table with a grace which ’twas pretty to contemplate. ’Twas strange to note that when her face was averted one might have guessed her to be some village girl or burgher’s daughter; but as soon as she had turned her imperial eyes on you she looked like a queen in a play. Her face was a curious one, serious and dignified beyond her years and sex, yet with odd sparkles of gayety dancing in her eyes and the corners of her rosy mouth.
Master Semple had set about helping her, and a pretty sight it was to see her reproving and circumventing his clumsiness. ’Twas not hard to see the relation between the two. The love-light shone in his eye whenever he looked toward her; and she, for her part, seemed to thrill at his chance touch. One strange thing I noted, that, whereas in France two young folks could not have gone about the business of setting a supper-table without much laughter and frolic, all was done here as if ‘twere some solemn ceremonial.
To one who was still sick with the thought of the black uplands he had traversed, of the cold, driving rain and the deadly bogs, the fare in the manse was like the apple to Eve in the garden. ’Twas fine to be eating crisp oaten cakes, and butter fresh from the churn, to be drinking sweet, warm milk — for we lived on the plainest; and, above all, to watch kindly faces around you in place of marauders and low ruffians. The minister said a lengthy grace before and after the meal; and when the table was cleared the servants were called in to evening prayer. Again the sight pleased me — the two maids with their brown country faces seated decently by the door; Anne, half in shadow, sitting demurely with Master Semple not far off, and at the table-head the white hairs of the old man bowed over the Bible. He read I know not what, for I am not so familiar with the Scriptures as I should be, and, moreover, Anne’s grave face was a more entrancing study. Then we knelt, and he prayed to God to watch over us in all our ways and bring us at last to his prepared kingdom. Truly, when I arose from my knees, I felt more tempted to be devout than I have any remembrance of before.
Then we sat and talked of this and that, and I must tell over all my misfortunes again for mademoiselle’s entertainment. She listened with open wonder, and thanked me with her marvelous eyes. Then to bed with a vile-smelling lamp, in a wide, low-ceilinged sleeping room, where the sheets were odorous of bog-myrtle and fresh as snow. Sleep is a goddess easy of conquest when wooed in such a fashion.
All this has taken a long time to set down, but there was little time in the acting. Scarce half an hour had passed from my waking by the black fire till I found myself up to the waist in the stream. I made no further delay, but, as soon as the air was quiet, led Saladin out as stilly as I could on the far side of the willows, clambered on his back (for I was too sore in body to mount in any other fashion), and was riding for dear life along the moor road in the contrary direction to that from which I had come on the night before. The horse had plainly been well fed, since, doubtless, the ruffians had marked him for their own plunder. He covered the ground in gallant fashion, driving up jets and splashes of rain water from the pools in the way. Mile after mile was passed with no sound of pursuers; one hill gave place to another; the stream grew wider and more orderly; but still I kept up the breakneck pace, fearing to slacken rein. Fifteen miles were covered, as I judged, before I saw the first light of dawn in the sky, a red streak in a gray desert; and brought my horse down to a trot, thanking God that at last I was beyond danger.
I was sore in body, with clammy garments sticking to my skin, aching in back and neck, unslept, well-nigh as miserable as a man could be. But great as was my bodily discomfort, ’twas not one tittle to compare with the sickness of my heart. I had been driven to escape from a hostel by a window like a common thief; compelled to ride, — nay, there was no use in disguising it, — to flee, before a pack of ill-bred villains; I, a gentleman of France, who had ruffled it with the best of them in my fit of prosperity. Again and again I questioned with myself whether I had not done better to die in that place, fighting as long as the breath was in my body. Of this I am sure, at any rate, that it would have been the way more soothing to my pride. I argued the matter with myself, according to the most approved logic, but could come no nearer to the solution. For while I thought the picture of myself dying with my back to the wall the more heroical and gentleman-like, it yet went sore against me to think of myself, with all my skill of the sword and the polite arts, perishing in a desert place at the hand of common cut-throats. ’Twas no fear of death, I give my word of honor; that was a weakness never found in our race. Courage is a virtue I take no credit for; ’tis but a matter of upbringing. But a man loves to make some noise in the earth ere he leaves it, or at least to pass with blowings of the trumpet and some manner of show. To this day I cannot think of any way by which I could have mended my conduct. I can but set it down as a mischance of Providence, which meets all men in their career, but of which no man of spirit cares to think.
The sun rose clear, but had scarce shone for an hour, when, as is the way in this land, a fresh deluge of rain came on, and the dawn, which had begun in crimson, ended in a dull level of gray. I had never been used with much foul weather of this sort, so I bore it ill. ’Twas about nine of the morning when I rode into the village of Drumlanrig, a jumble of houses in the lee of a great wood, which runs up to meet the descending moorlands. Some ragged brats, heedless of the weather, played in the street, if one may call it by so fine a name; but for the most part the houses seemed quite deserted. A woman looked incuriously at me; a man who was carrying sacks scarce raised his head to view me; the whole place was like a dwelling of the dead. I have since learned the reason, which was no other than the accursed butchery on which I had quarreled with Quentin Kennedy, and so fallen upon misfortune. The young and manly were all gone; some to the hills for hiding, some to the town prisons, some across the seas to work in the plantations, and some on that long journey from which no man returns. My heart boils within me to this day to think of it — but there! it is long since past, and I have little need to be groaning over it now.
There was no inn in the place, but I bought bread from the folk of a little farm-steading at one end of the village street. They would scarce give it to me at first, and ’twas not till they beheld my woebegone plight that their hearts relented. Doubtless they took me for one of the soldiers who had harried them and theirs, little guessing that ’twas all for their sake that I was in such evil case. I did not tarry to ask the road, for Leith was too far distant for the people in that place to know it. Of this much I was sure, that it lay to the northeast, so I took my way in that direction, shaping my course by the sun. There was a little patch of green fields, a clump of trees, and a quiet stream beside the village; but I had scarce ridden half a mile beyond it when once more the moor swallowed me up in its desert of moss and wet heather.
I was now doubly dispirited. My short exhilaration of escape had gone, and all the pangs of wounded pride and despair seized upon me, mingled with a sort of horror of the place I had come through. Whenever I saw a turn of hill which brought the Angel’s Ladder to my mind, I shivered in spite of myself, and could have found it in my heart to turn and flee. In addition, I would have you remember, I was soaked to the very skin, my eyes weary with lack of sleep, and my legs cramped with much riding.
The place in the main was moorland, with steep, desolate hills on my left. On the right to the south I had glimpses of a fairer country, woods and distant fields, seen for an instant through the driving mist. In a trice France was back in my mind, for I could not see an acre of green land without coming nigh to tears. Yet, and perhaps ’twas fortunate for me, such glimpses were all too rare. For the most part, the way was a long succession of sloughs and mires, with here a piece of dry, heathy ground, and there an impetuous water coming down from the highlands. Saladin soon fell tired, and, indeed, small wonder, since he had come many miles, and his fare had been of the scantiest. He would put his foot in a bog-hole and stumble so sharply that I would all but lose my seat. Then, poor beast, he would take shame to himself, and pick his way as well as his weary legs would suffer him. ’Twas an evil plight for man and steed, and I knew not which to pity the more.
At noon, I came to the skirts of a long hill, whose top was hidden with fog, but which I judged to be high and lonesome. I met a man — the first I had seen since Drumlanrig — and asked him my whereabouts. I learned that the hill was called Queen’s Berry, and that in some dozen miles I would strike the high road to Edinburgh. I could get not another word out of him, but must needs content myself with this crumb of knowledge. The road in front was no road, nothing but a heathery moor, with walls of broken stones seaming it like the lines of sewing in an old coat. Gray broken hills came up for a minute, as a stray wind blew the mist aside, only to disappear the next instant in a ruin of cloud.
From this place I mark the beginning of the most wretched journey in my memory. Till now I had had some measure of bodily strength to support me. Now it failed, and a cold shivering fit seized on my vitals, and more than once I was like to have fallen from my horse. A great stupidity came over my brain; I could call up no remembrance to cheer me, but must plod on in a horror of darkness. The cause was not far distant — cold, wet, and despair. I tried to swallow some of the rain-soaked bread in my pouch, but my mouth was as dry as a skin. I dismounted to drink at a stream, but the water could hardly trickle down my throat so much did it ache. ’Twas as if I were on the eve of an ague, and in such a place it were like to be the end of me.
Had there been a house, I should have craved shelter. But one effect of my sickness was, that I soon strayed woefully from my path, such as it was, and found myself in an evil case with bogs and steep hillsides. I had much to do in keeping Saladin from danger; and had I not felt the obligation to behave like a man, I should have flung the reins on his neck and let him bear himself and his master to destruction. Again and again I drove the wish from my mind—”As well die in a bog-hole or break your neck over a crag as dwine away with ague in the cold heather, as you are like to do,” said the tempter. But I steeled my heart, and made a great resolve to keep one thing, though I should lose all else — some shreds of my manhood.
Toward evening I grew so ill that I was fain, when we came to a level place, to lay my head on Saladin’s neck, and let him stumble forward. My head swam, and my back ached so terribly that I guessed feverishly that someone had stabbed me unawares. The weather cleared just about even, and the light of day flickered out in a watery sunset. ’Twas like the close of my life, I thought, a gray ill day and a poor ending. The notion depressed me miserably. I felt a kinship with that feeble evening light, a kinship begotten of equality in weakness. However, all would soon end; my day must presently have its evening; and then, if all tales were true, and my prayers had any efficacy, I should be in a better place.
But when once the night in its blackness had set in, I longed for the light again, however dismal it might be. A ghoulish song, one which I had heard long before, was ever coming to my memory:
La pluye nous a débuez et lavez, Et le soleil desséchez et noirciz: Pies, corbeaulx — .
With a sort of horror I tried to drive it from my mind. A dreadful heaviness oppressed me. Fears which I am ashamed to set down thronged my brain. The way had grown easier, or I make no doubt my horse had fallen. ’Twas a track we were on, I could tell by the greater freedom with which Saladin stepped. God send, I prayed, that we be near to folk, and that they be kindly; this prayer I said many times to the accompaniment of the whistling of the doleful wind. Every gust pained me. I was the sport of the weather, a broken puppet tossed about by circumstance.
Now an answer was sent to me, and that a speedy one. I came of a sudden to a clump of shrubbery beside a wall. Then at a turn of the way a light shone through, as from a broad window among trees. A few steps more and I stumbled on a gate, and turned Saladin’s head up a pathway. The rain dripped heavily from the bushes, a branch slashed me in the face, and my weariness grew tenfold with every second. I dropped like a log before the door, scarce looking to see whether the house was great or little; and, ere I could knock or make any call, swooned away dead on the threshold.
I dropped wearily from my horse and stumbled forward to the door. ’Twas close shut, but rays of light came through the chinks at the foot, and the great light in the further window lit up the ground for some yards. I knocked loudly with my sword-hilt. Stillness seemed to reign within, save that from some distant room a faint sound of men’s voices was brought. A most savory smell stole out to the raw air and revived my hunger with hopes of supper.
Again I knocked, this time rudely, and the door rattled on its hinges. This brought some signs of life from within. I could hear a foot on the stone floor of a passage, a bustling as of many folk running hither and thither, and a great barking of a sheep-dog. Of a sudden the door was flung open, a warm blaze of light rushed forth, and I stood blinking before the master of the house.
He was a tall, grizzled man of maybe fifty years, thin, with a stoop in his back that all hill-folk have, and a face brown with sun and wind. I judged him fifty, but he may have been younger by ten years, for in that desert men age the speedier. His dress was dirty and ragged in many places, and in one hand he carried a pistol, which he held before him as if for protection. He stared at me for a second.
“Wha are ye that comes dirlin’ here on sic a nicht?” said he, and I give his speech as I remember it. As he uttered the words, he looked me keenly in the face, and I felt his thin, cold glance piercing to the roots of my thoughts. I liked the man ill, for, what with his lean figure and sour countenance, he was far different from the jovial, well-groomed fellows who will give you greeting at any wayside inn from Calais to Bordeaux.
“You ask a strange question, and one little needing answer. If a man has wandered for hours in bog-holes, he will be in no mind to stand chaffering at inn doors. I seek a night’s lodging for my horse and myself.”
“It’s little we can give you, for it’s a bare, sinfu’ land,” said he, “but such as I ha’e ye’re welcome to. Bide a minute, and I’ll bring a licht to tak’ ye to the stable.”
He was gone down the passage for a few seconds, and returned with a rushlight encased against the wind in a wicker covering. The storm made it flicker and flare till it sent dancing shadows over the dark walls of the house. The stable lay round by the back end, and thither poor Saladin and his master stumbled over a most villainous rough ground. The place, when found, was no great thing to boast of — a cold shed, damp with rain, with blaffs of wind wheezing through it; and I was grieved to think of my horse’s nightly comfort. The host snatched from a rack a truss of hay, which by its smell was old enough, and tossed it into the manger. “There ye are, and it’s mair than mony a Christian gets in thae weary days.”
Then he led the way back into the house. We entered a draughty passage with a window at one end, broken in part, through which streamed the cold air. A turn brought me into a little square room, where a fire flickered and a low lamp burned on the table. ’Twas so home-like and peaceful that my heart went out to it, and I thanked my fate for the comfortable lodging I had chanced on. Mine host stirred the blaze and bade me strip off my wet garments. He fetched me an armful of rough homespuns, but I cared little to put them on, so I e’en sat in my shirt and waited on the drying of my coat. My mother’s portrait, the one by Grizot, which I have had set in gold and wear always near my heart, dangled to my lap, and I took this for an evil omen. I returned it quick to its place, the more so because I saw the landlord’s lantern-jaw close at the sight, and his cold eyes twinkle. Had I been wise, too, I would have stripped my rings from my fingers ere I began this ill-boding travel, for it does not behoove a gentleman to be sojourning among beggars with gold about him.
“Have ye come far the day?” the man asked, in his harsh voice. “Ye’re gey-like splashed wi’ dirt, so I jalouse ye cam ower the Angel’s Ladder.”
“Angel’s ladder!” quoth I, “devil’s ladder I call it! for a more blackguardly place I have not clapped eyes on since I first mounted horse.”
“Angel’s Ladder they call it,” said the man, to all appearance never heeding my words, “for there, mony a year syne, an holy man of God, one Ebenezer Clavershaws, preached to a goodly gathering on the shining ladder seen by the patriarch Jacob at Bethel, which extended from earth to heaven. ’Twas a rich discourse, and I have it still in my mind.”
“’Twas more likely to have been a way to the Evil One for me. Had I but gone a further step many a time, I should have been giving my account ere this to my Maker. But a truce to this talk. ’Twas not to listen to such that I came here; let me have supper, the best you have, and a bottle of whatever wine you keep in this accursed place. Burgundy is my choice.”
“Young man,” the fellow said gravely, looking at me with his unpleasing eyes, “you are one who loves the meat that perisheth rather than the unsearchable riches of God’s grace. Oh, be warned while yet there is time. You know not the delights of gladsome communion wi’ Him, which makes the moss-hags and heather-busses more fair than the roses of Sharon or the balmy plains of Gilead. Oh, be wise and turn, for now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation!”
SacrÃ©! what madman have I fallen in with, thought I, who talks in this fashion. I had heard of the wild deeds of those in our own land who call themselves Huguenots, and I was not altogether without fear. But my appetite was keen, and my blood was never of the coolest.
“Peace with your nonsense, sirrah,” I said sternly; “what man are you who come and prate before your guests, instead of fetching their supper? Let me have mine at once, and no more of your Scripture.”
As I spoke, I looked him angrily in the face, and my bearing must have had some effect upon him, for he turned suddenly and passed out.
A wench appeared, a comely slip of a girl, with eyes somewhat dazed and timorous, and set the table with viands. There was a moor-fowl, well-roasted and tasty to the palate, a cut of salted beef, and for wine, a bottle of French claret of excellent quality. ’Twas so much in excess of my expectation, that I straightway fell into a good humor, and the black cloud of dismay lifted in some degree from my wits. I filled my glass and looked at it against the fire-glow, and dreamed that ’twas an emblem of the after course of my life. Who knew what fine things I might come to yet, though now I was solitary in a strange land?
The landlord came in and took away the remnants himself. He looked at me fixedly more than once, and in his glance I read madness, greed, and hatred. I feared his look, and was glad to see him leave, for he made me feel angry and a little awed. However, thought I, ’tis not the first time I have met a churlish host, and I filled my glass again.
The fire bickered cheerily, lighting up the room and comforting my cold skin. I drew my chair close and stretched out my legs to the blaze, till in a little, betwixt heat and weariness, I was pleasantly drowsy. I fell to thinking of the events of the day and the weary road I had traveled; then to an earlier time, when I first came to Scotland, and my hopes were still unbroken. After all this I began to mind me of the pleasant days in France; for, though I had often fared ill enough there, all was forgotten but the good fortune; and I had soon built out of my brain a France which was liker Paradise than anywhere on earth. Every now and then a log would crackle or fall, and so wake me with a start, for the fire was of that sort which is common in hilly places — a great bank of peat with wood laid athwart. Blue, pungent smoke came out in rings and clouds, which smelt gratefully in my nostrils after the black out-of-doors.
By and by, what with thinking of the past, what with my present comfort, and what with an ever hopeful imagination, my prospects came to look less dismal. ’Twas true that I was here in a most unfriendly land with little money and no skill of the country. But Scotland was but a little place, after all. I must come to Leith in time, where I could surely meet a French skipper who would take me over, money or no. You will ask, whoever may chance to read this narrative, why, in Heaven’s name, I did not turn and go back to Ayr, the port from which I had come? The reason is not far to seek. The whole land behind me stank in my nostrils, for there dwelt Quentin Kennedy, and there lay the scene of my discomfiture and my sufferings. Faugh! the smell of that wretched moor-road is with me yet. So, with thinking one way and another, I came to a decision to go forward in any case, and trust to God and my own good fortune. After this I must have ceased to have any thoughts, and dropped off snugly to sleep.
I wakened, at what time I know not, shivering, with a black fire before my knees. The room was black with darkness, save where through a chink in the window-shutter there came a gleam of pale moonlight. I sprang up in haste and called for a servant to show me to my sleeping room, but the next second I could have wished the word back, for I feared that no servant would be awake and at hand. To my mind there seemed something passing strange in thus leaving a guest to slumber by the fire.
To my amazement, the landlord himself came to my call, bearing a light in his hand. I was reasonably surprised, for though I knew not the hour of the night, I judged from the state of the fire that it must have been far advanced.
“I had fallen asleep,” I said, in apology, “and now would finish what I have begun. Show me my bed.”
“It’ll be a dark nicht and a coorse, out-bye,” said the man, as he led the way solemnly from the room, up a rickety stair, down a mirk passage to a chamber which, from the turnings of the house, I guessed to be facing the east. ’Twas a comfortless place, and ere I could add a word I found the man leaving the room with the light. “You’ll find your way to bed in the dark,” quoth he, and I was left in blackness.
I sat down on the edge of the bed, half-stupid with sleep, my teeth chattering with the cold, listening to the gusts of wind battering against the little window. ‘Faith! thought I, this is the worst entertainment I ever had, and I have made trial of many. Yet I need not complain, for I have had a good fire and a royal supper, and my present discomfort is due in great part to my own ill habit of drowsiness. I rose to undress, for my bones were sore after the long day’s riding, when, by some chance, I moved forward to the window and opened it to look on the night.
’Twas wintry weather outside, though but the month of August. The face of the hills fronting me were swathed in white mist, which hung low even to the banks of the stream. There was a great muttering in the air of swollen water, for the rain had ceased, and the red waves were left to roll down the channel to the lowlands and make havoc of meadow and steading. The sky was cumbered with clouds, and no clear light of the moon came through; but since ’twas nigh the time of the full moon the night was not utterly dark.
I lingered for maybe five minutes in this posture, and then I heard that which made me draw in my head and listen the more intently. A thud of horses’ hoofs on the wet ground came to my ear. A second, and it was plainer, the noise of some half-dozen riders clearly approaching the inn. ’Twas a lonesome place, and I judged it strange that company should come so late.
I flung myself on the bed in my clothes, and could almost have fallen asleep as I was, so weary was my body. But there was that in my mind which forbade slumber, a vague uneasiness as of some ill approaching, which it behooved me to combat. Again and again I tried to drive it from me as mere cowardice, but again it returned to vex me. There was nothing for it but that I should lie on my back and bide what might come.
Then again I heard a sound, this time from a room beneath. ’Twas as if men were talking softly, and moving to and fro. My curiosity was completely aroused, and I thought it no shame to my soldierly honor to slip from my room and gather what was the purport of their talk. At such a time, and in such a place, it boded no good for me, and the evil face of the landlord was ever in my memory. The staircase creaked a little as it felt my weight, but it had been built for heavier men, and I passed it in safety. Clearly the visitors were in the room where I had supped.
“Will we ha’e muckle wark wi’ him, think ye?” I heard one man ask.
“Na, na,” said another, whom I knew for mine host, “he’s a foreigner, a man frae a fremt land, and a’ folk ken they’re little use. Forbye, I had stock o’ him mysel’, and I think I could mak’ his bit ribs crack thegither. He’ll no’ be an ill customer to deal wi’.”
“But will he no’ be a guid hand at the swird? There’s no yin o’ us here muckle at that.”
“Toots,” said another, “we’ll e’en get him intil a corner, where he’ll no git leave to stir an airm.”
I had no stomach for more. With a dull sense of fear I crept back to my room, scarce heeding in my anger whether I made noise or not. Good God! thought I, I have traveled by land and sea to die in a moorland alehouse by the hand of common robbers! My heart grew hot at the thought of the landlord, for I made no doubt but it was my jewels that had first set his teeth. I loosened my sword in its scabbard; and now I come to think of it, ’twas a great wonder that it had not been taken away from me while I slept. I could only guess that the man had been afraid to approach me before the arrival of his confederates. I gripped my sword-hilt; ah, how often had I felt its touch under kindlier circumstances — when I slew the boar in the woods at Belmont, when I made the Sieur de Biran crave pardon before my feet, when I —— But peace with such memories! At all events, if Jean de Rohaine must die among ruffians, unknown and forgotten, he would finish his days like a gentleman of courage. I prayed to God that I might only have the life of the leader.
But this world is sweet to all men, and as I awaited death in that dark room, it seemed especially fair to live. I was but in the prime of my age, on the near side of forty, hale in body, a master of the arts and graces. Were it not passing hard that I should perish in this wise? I looked every way for a means of escape. There was but one — the little window which looked upon the ground east of the inn. ’Twas just conceivable that a man might leap it and make his way to the hills, and so baffle his pursuers. Two thoughts deterred me; first, that I had no horse and could not continue my journey; second, that in all likelihood there would be a watch set below. My heart sank within me, and I ceased to think.
For, just at that moment, I heard a noise below as of men leaving the room. I shut my lips and waited. Here, I concluded, is death coming to meet me. But the next moment the noise had stopped, and ’twas evident that the conclave was not yet closed. ’Tis a strange thing, the mind of man, for I, who had looked with despair at my chances a minute agone, now, at the passing of this immediate danger, plucked up heart, clapped my hat on my head, and opened the window.
The night air blew chill, but all seemed silent below. So, very carefully I hung over the ledge, gripped the sill with my hands, swung my legs into the air, and dropped. I lighted on a tussock of grass and rolled over on my side, only to recover myself in an instant and rise to my feet, and, behold, at my side, a tall man keeping sentinel on horseback.
At this the last flicker of hope died in my bosom. The man never moved or spake, but only stared fixedly at me. Yet there was that in his face and bearing which led me to act as I did.
“If you are a man of honor,” I burst out, “though you are engaged in an accursed trade, dismount and meet me in combat. Your spawn will not be out for a little time, and the night is none so dark. If I must die, I would die at least in the open air, with my foe before me.”
My words must have found some answering chord in the man’s breast, for he presently spoke, and asked me my name and errand in the countryside. I told him in a dozen words, and at my tale he shrugged his shoulders.
“I am in a great mind,” says he, “to let you go. I am all but sick of this butcher work, and would fling it to the winds at a word. ’Tis well enough for the others, who are mongrel bred, but it ill becomes a man of birth like me, who am own cousin to the Maxwells o’ Drurie.”
He fell for a very little time into a sort of musing, tugging at his beard like a man in perplexity. Then he spoke out suddenly:
“See you yon tuft of willows by the water? There’s a space behind it where a horse and man might stand well concealed. There is your horse,” and he pointed to a group of horses standing tethered by the roadside; “lead him to the place I speak of, and trust to God for the rest. I will raise a scare that you’re off the other airt, and, mind, that whenever you see the tails o’ us, you mount and ride for life in the way I tell you. You should win to Drumlanrig by morning, where there are quieter folk. Now, mind my bidding, and dae’t before my good will changes.”
“May God do so to you in your extremity! If ever I meet you on earth I will repay you for your mercy. But a word with you. Who is that man?” and I pointed to the house.
The fellow laughed dryly. “It’s easy seen you’re no acquaint here, or you would ha’e heard o’ Long Jock o’ the Hirsel. There’s mony a man would face the devil wi’ a regiment o’ dragoons at his back, that would flee at a glint from Jock’s een. You’re weel quit o’ him. But be aff afore the folk are stirring.”
I needed no second bidding, but led Saladin with all speed to the willows, where I made him stand knee-keep in the water within cover of the trees, while I crouched by his side. ’Twas none too soon, for I was scarce in hiding when I heard a great racket in the house, and the sound of men swearing and mounting horse. There was a loud clattering of hoofs, which shortly died away, and left the world quiet, save for the broil of the stream and the loud screaming of moorbirds.
The narrative, now for the first time presented to the world, was written by the Sieur de Rohaine to while away the time during the long period and painful captivity, borne with heroic resolution, which preceded his death. He chose the English tongue, in which he was extraordinarily proficient, for two reasons: first, as an exercise in the language; second, because he desired to keep the passages here recorded from the knowledge of certain of his kinsfolk in France. Few changes have been made in his work. Now and then an English idiom has been substituted for a French; certain tortuous expressions have been emended; and in general the portions in the Scots dialect have been rewritten, since the author’s knowledge of this manner of speech seems scarcely to have been so great as he himself thought.
Before me stretched a black heath, over which the mist blew in gusts, and through whose midst the road crept like an adder. Great storm-marked hills flanked me on either side, and since I set out I had seen their harsh outline against a thick sky, until I longed for flat ground to rest my sight upon. The way was damp, and the soft mountain gravel sank under my horse’s feet; and ever and anon my legs were splashed by the water from some pool which the rain had left. Shrill mountain birds flew around, and sent their cries through the cold air. Sometimes the fog would lift for a moment from the face of the land and show me a hilltop or the leaden glimmer of a loch, but nothing more — no green field or homestead; only a barren and accursed desert.
Neither horse nor man was in any spirit. My back ached, and I shivered in my sodden garments, while my eyes were dim from gazing on flying clouds. The poor beast stumbled often, for he had traveled far on little fodder, and a hill-road was a new thing in his experience. Saladin I called him — for I had fancied that there was something Turkish about his black face, with the heavy turban-like band above his forehead — in my old fortunate days when I bought him. He was a fine horse of the Normandy breed, and had carried me on many a wild journey, though on none so forlorn as this.
But to speak of myself. I am Jean de Rohaine, at your service; Sieur de Rohaine in the province of Touraine — a gentleman, I trust, though one in a sorry plight. And how I came to be in the wild highlands of the place called Galloway, in the bare kingdom of Scotland, I must haste to tell. In the old days, when I had lived as became my rank in my native land, I had met a Scot, — one Kennedy by name, — a great man in his own country, with whom I struck up an intimate friendship. He and I were as brothers, and he swore that if I came to visit him in his own home he would see to it that I should have the best. I thanked him at the time for his bidding, but thought little more of it.
Now, by ill fortune, the time came when, what with gaming and pleasuring, I was a beggared man, and I bethought me of the Scot’s offer. I had liked the man well, and I considered how it would be no ill thing to abide in that country till I should find some means of bettering my affairs. So I took ship and came to the town of Ayr, from which ’twas but a day’s ride to the house of my friend. ’Twas in midsummer when I landed, and the place looked not so bare as I had feared, as I rode along between green meadows to my destination. There I found Quentin Kennedy, somewhat grown old and more full in flesh than I remembered him in the past. He had been a tall, black-avised man when I first knew him; now he was grizzled, — whether from hard living or the harshness of northern weather I know not, — and heavier than a man of action is wont to be. He greeted me most hospitably, putting his house at my bidding, and swearing that I should abide and keep him company and go no more back to the South.
So for near a month I stayed there, and such a time of riot and hilarity I scarce remember. Mon Dieu, but the feasting and the sporting would have rejoiced the hearts of my comrades of the Rue Margot! I had already learned much of the Scots tongue at the college in Paris, where every second man hails from this land, and now I was soon perfect in it, speaking it all but as well as my host. ’Tis a gift I have, for I well remember how, when I consorted for some months in the low countries with an Italian of Milan, I picked up a fair knowledge of his speech. So now I found myself in the midst of men of spirit, and a rare life we led. The gentlemen of the place would come much about the house, and I promise you ’twas not seldom we saw the morning in as we sat at wine. There was, too, the greatest sport at coursing and hunting the deer in Kennedy’s lands by the Water of Doon.
Yet there was that I liked not among the fellows who came thither, nay, even in my friend himself. We have a proverb in France that the devil when he spoils a German in the making turns him into a Scot, and for certain there was much boorishness among them, which to my mind sits ill on gentlemen. They would jest at one another till I thought that in a twinkling swords would be out, and lo! I soon found that ’twas but done for sport, and with no evil intent. They were clownish in their understanding, little recking of the feelings of a man of honor, but quick to grow fierce on some tittle of provocation which another would scarce notice. Indeed, ’tis my belief that one of this nation is best in his youth, for Kennedy, whom I well remembered as a man of courage and breeding, had grown grosser and more sottish with his years, till I was fain to ask where was my friend of the past.
And now I come to that which brought on my departure and my misfortunes. ’Twas one night as I returned weary from riding after a stag in the haugh by the river, that Quentin cried hastily, as I entered, that now he had found something worthy of my attention.
“To-morrow, Jock,” says he, “you will see sport. There has been some cursed commotion among the folk of the hills, and I am out the morrow to redd the marches. You shall have a troop of horse and ride with me, and, God’s death, we will have a taste of better work!”
I cried out that I could have asked for naught better, and, indeed, I was overjoyed that the hard drinking and idleness were at an end, and that the rigors of warfare lay before me. For I am a soldier by birth and by profession, and I love the jingle of steel and the rush of battle.
So, on the morrow, I rode to the mountains with a score of dragoons behind me, glad and hopeful. Diable! How shall I tell my disappointment? The first day I had seen all — and more than I wished. We fought, not with men like ourselves, but with women and children and unarmed yokels, and butchered like Cossacks more than Christians. I grew sick of the work, and would have none of it, but led my men to the rendezvous sullenly, and hot at heart. ’Twas well the night was late when we arrived, else I should have met with Kennedy there and then, and God knows what might have happened.
The next day, in a great fit of loathing, I followed my host again, hoping that the worst was over, and that henceforth I should have something more to my stomach. But little I knew of the men with whom I journeyed. There was a cottage there, a shepherd’s house, and God! they burned it down, and the man they shot before his wife and children, speaking naught to him but foul-mouthed reproaches and jabber about some creed which was strange to me. I could not prevent it, though ’twas all that I could do to keep myself from a mad attack.
I rode up to Quentin Kennedy.
“Sir,” I said, “I have had great kindness at your hands, but you and I must part. I see that we are made of different stuff. I can endure war, but not massacre.”
He laughed at my scruples, incredulous of my purpose, until at last he saw that I was fixed in my determination. Then he spoke half kindly:
“This is a small matter to stand between me and thee. I am a servant of the king, and but do my duty. I little thought to have disloyalty preached from your lips; but bide with me, and I promise that you shall see no more of it.”
But my anger was too great, and I would have none of him. Then — and now I marvel at the man’s forbearance — he offered me money to recompense me for my trouble. ’Twas honestly meant, and oft have I regretted my action, but to me in my fury it seemed but an added insult.
“Nay,” said I angrily; “I take no payment from butchers. I am a gentleman, if a poor one.”
At this he flushed wrathfully, and I thought for an instant that he would have drawn on me; but he refrained, and I rode off alone among the moors. I knew naught of the land, and I must have taken the wrong way, for noon found me hopelessly mazed among a tangle of rocks and hills and peat-mosses. Verily, Quentin Kennedy had taken the best revenge by suffering me to follow my own leading.
In the early hours of my journey my head was in such a whirl of wrath and dismay, that I had little power to think settled thoughts. I was in a desperate confusion, half angry at my own haste, and half bitter at the coldness of a friend who would permit a stranger to ride off alone with scarce a word of regret. When I have thought the matter out in after days, I have been as perplexed as ever; yet it still seems to me, though I know not how, that I acted as any man of honor and heart would approve. Still this thought was little present to me in my discomfort, as I plashed through the sodden turf.
I had breakfasted at Kennedy’s house of Dunpeel in the early morning, and since I had no provision of any sort with me, ’twas not long ere the biting of hunger began to set in. My race is a hardy stock, used to much hardships and rough fare, but in this inclement land my heart failed me wholly, and I grew sick and giddy, what with the famishing and the cold rain. For, though ’twas late August, the month of harvest and fruit-time in my own fair land, it seemed more like winter. The gusts of sharp wind came driving out of the mist and pierced me to the very marrow. So chill were they that my garments were of no avail to avert them; being, indeed, of the thinnest, and cut according to the fashion of fine cloth for summer wear at the shows and gallantries of the town. A pretty change, thought I, from the gardens of Versailles and the trim streets of Paris to this surly land; and sad it was to see my cloak, meant for no rougher breeze than the gentle south, tossed and scattered by a grim wind.
I have marked it often, and here I proved its truth, that man’s thoughts turn always to the opposites of his present state. Here was I, set in the most uncharitable land on earth; and yet ever before my eyes would come brief visions of the gay country which I had forsaken. In a gap of hill I fancied that I descried a level distance with sunny vineyards and rich orchards, to which I must surely come if I but hastened. When I stooped to drink at a stream, I fancied ere I drank it that the water would taste like the Bordeaux I was wont to drink at the little hostelry in the Rue Margot; and when the tasteless liquid once entered my mouth, the disenchantment was severe. I met one peasant, an old man bent with toil, coarse-featured, yet not without some gleams of kindness, and I could not refrain from addressing him in my native tongue. For though I could make some shape at his barbarous patois, in my present distress it came but uneasily from my lips. He stared at me stupidly, and when I repeated the question in the English, he made some unintelligible reply, and stumbled onward in his way. I watched his poor figure as he walked. Such, thought I, are the canaille of the land, and ’tis little wonder if their bodies be misshapen, and their minds dull, for an archangel would become a boor if he dwelt here for any space of time.
But enough of such dreams, and God knows no man had ever less cause for dreaming. Where was I to go, and what might my purpose be in this wilderness which men call the world? An empty belly and a wet skin do not tend to sedate thinking, so small wonder if I saw little ahead. I was making for the end of the earth, caring little in what direction, weary and sick of heart, with sharp anger at the past, and never a hope for the morrow.
Yet, even in my direst days, I have ever found some grain of expectation to console me. I had five crowns in my purse; little enough, but sufficient to win me a dinner and a bed at some cheap hostelry. So all through the gray afternoon I looked sharply for a house, mistaking every monstrous bowlder for a gable-end. I cheered my heart with thinking of dainties to be looked for; a dish of boiled fish, or a piece of mutton from one of the wild-faced sheep which bounded ever and anon across my path. Nay, I was in no mood to be fastidious. I would e’en be content with a poor fare, provided always I could succeed in swallowing it, for my desire soon became less for the attainment of a pleasure than for the alleviation of a discomfort. For I was ravenous as a hawk, and had it in my heart more than once to dismount, and seek for the sparse hill-berries.
And, indeed, this was like to have been my predicament, for the day grew late and I came no nearer a human dwelling. The valley in which I rode grew wider, about to open, as I thought, into the dale of a river. The hills, from rising steeply by the wayside, were withdrawn to the distance of maybe a mile, where they lifted their faces through the network of the mist. All the land between them, save a strip where the road lay, was filled with a black marsh, where moor birds made a most dreary wailing. It minded me of the cries of the innocents whom King Herod slew, as I had seen the dead represented outside the village church of Rohaine in my far-away homeland. My heart grew sore with longing. I had bartered my native country for the most dismal on earth, and all for nothing. Madman that I was, were it not better to be a beggar in France than a horse-captain in any other place? I cursed my folly sorely, as each fresh blast sent a shiver through my body. Nor was my horse in any better state — Saladin, whom I had seen gayly decked at a procession with ribbons and pretty favors, who had carried me so often and so far, who had always fared on the best. The poor beast was in a woeful plight, with his pasterns bleeding from the rough stones and his head bent with weariness. Verily, I pitied him more than myself, and if I had had a crust we should have shared it.
The night came in, black as a draw-well and stormy as the Day of Doom. I had now no little trouble in picking out the way from among the treacherous morasses. Of a sudden my horse would have a forefoot in a pool of black peat-water, from which I would scarce, by much pulling, recover him. A sharp jag of stone in the way would all but bring him to his knees. So we dragged wearifully along, scarce fearing, caring, hoping for anything in this world or another.
It was, I judge, an hour after nightfall, about nine of the clock, when I fancied that some glimmer shot through the thick darkness. I could have clapped my hands for joy had I been able; but alas! these were so stiff, that clapping was as far from me as from a man with the palsy.
“Courage!” said I, “courage, Saladin! There is yet hope for us!”
The poor animal seemed to share in my expectations. He carried me quicker forward, so that soon the feeble gleam had grown to a broad light. Inn or dwelling, thought I, there I stay, for I will go not a foot further for man or devil. My sword must e’en be my fourrier to get me a night’s lodging. Then I saw the house, a low, dark place, unillumined save for that front window which shone as an invitation to travelers. In a minute I was at the threshold. There, in truth, was the sign flapping above the lintel. ’Twas an inn at length, and my heart leaped out in gratitude.