When I set out to write this history in the English tongue, that none of my own house might read it, I did not know the hard task that lay before me. For if I were writing it in my own language, I could tell the niceties of my feelings in a way which is impossible for me in any other. And, indeed, to make my conduct intelligible, I should forthwith fall to telling each shade of motive and impulse which came to harass my mind. But I am little skilled in this work, so I must needs recount only the landmarks of my life, or I should never reach the end.
I slept ill that night, and at earliest daylight was awake and dressing. The full gravity of the case was open to me now, and you may guess that my mind was no easy one. I went down to the sitting room, where the remains of the last night’s supper still lay on the table. The white morning light made all things clear and obtrusive, and I remember wishing that the lamp was lit again and the shutters closed. But in a trice all meditations were cast to the winds, for I heard the door at the back of the house flung violently open and the sound of a man’s feet on the kitchen floor.
I knew that I was the only one awake in the house, so with much haste I passed out of the room to ascertain who the visitor might be. In the center of the back room stood a great swart man, shaking the rain from his clothes and hair, and waiting like one about to give some message. When he saw me he took a step forward, scanned me closely, and then waited my question.
“Who in the devil’s name are you?” I asked angrily, for I was half amazed and half startled by his sudden advent.
“In the Lord’s name I am Andrew Gibb,” he responded solemnly.
“And what’s your errand?” I asked further.
“Bide a wee and you’ll hear. You’ll be the foreigner whae stops at the manse the noo?”
“Go on,” I said shortly.
“Thae twae sants, Maister Lambert and Maister Semple, ‘ill ha’e made some kind o’ covenant wi’ you? At ony rate, hear my news and dae your best. Their hidy-hole at the heid o’ the Stark Water’s been betrayed, and unless they get warning it’ll be little you’ll hear mair o’ them. I’ve aye been their freend, so I cam’ here to do my pairt by them.”
“Are you one of the hill-men?”
“Na, na! God forbid! I’m a douce, quiet-leevin’ man, and I’d see the Kirk rummle aboot their lugs ere I’d stir my shanks frae my ain fireside. But I’m behauden to the minister for the life o’ my bairn, whilk is ower lang a story for ye to hear; and to help him I would rin frae Maidenkirk to Berwick. So I’ve aye made it my wark to pick up ony word o’ scaith that was comin’ to him, and that’s why I’m here the day. Ye’ve heard my news richt, ye’re shure?”
“I’ve heard your news. Will you take any food before you leave?”
“Na; I maun be off to be back in time for the kye.”
“Well, good-day to you, Andrew Gibb,” I said, and in a minute the man was gone.
Now, here I must tell what I omitted to tell in a former place — that when the exiles took to the hills they bade me, if I heard any word of danger to their hiding-place, to go by a certain path, which they pointed out, to a certain place, and there overturn a little cairn of stones. This was to be a signal to them for instant movement. I knew nothing of the place of their retreat, and for this reason could swear on my oath with an easy conscience; but this scrap of enlightenment I had, a scrap of momentous import for both life and death.
I turned back to the parlor in a fine confusion of mind. By some means or other the task which was now before me had come to seem singularly disagreeable. The thought of my entertainers — I am ashamed to write it — was a bitter thought. I had acquired a reasonless dislike to them. What cause had they, I asked, to be crouching in hill-caves and first getting honest gentlemen into delicate and difficult positions, and then troubling them with dangerous errands. Then there was the constant vision of the maid to vex me. This was the sorest point of all. For, though I blush to own it, the sight of her was not altogether unpleasing to me; nay, to put it positively, I had come almost to feel an affection for her. She was so white and red and golden, all light and gravity, with the shape of a princess, the mien of a goddess, and, for all I knew the heart of a dancing-girl. She carried with her the air of comfort and gayety, and the very thought of her made me shrink from the dark moors and ill-boding errand as from the leprosy.
There is in every man a latent will, apart altogether from that which he uses in common life, which is apt at times to assert itself when he least expects it. Such was my honor, for lo! I found myself compelled by an inexorable force to set about the performance of my duty. I take no credit for it, since I was only half willing, my grosser inclination being all against it. But something bade me do it, calling me poltroon, coward, traitor, if I refused; so ere I left the kitchen I had come to a fixed decision.
To my wonder, at the staircase foot I met Anne, dressed, but with her hair all in disorder. I stood booted and cloaked and equipped for the journey, and at the sight of me her face filled with surprise.
“Where away so early, John?” says she.
“Where away so early, Mistress Anne?” said I.
“Ah, I slept ill, and came down to get the morning air.” I noted that her eyes were dull and restless, and I do believe that the poor maid had had a sorry night of it. A sharp fear at my heart told me the cause.
“Anne,” I said sullenly, “I am going on a hard errand, and I entreat you to keep out of harm’s way till I return.”
“And what is your errand, pray?” she asked.
“Nothing less than to save the lives of your father and your lover. I have had word from a secret source of a great danger which overhangs them, and by God’s help I would remove it.”
At my word a light, half angry and half pathetic, came to her eyes. It passed like a sungleam, and in its place was left an expression of cold distaste.
“Then God prosper you,” she said, in a formal tone, and with a whisk of her skirts she was gone.
I strode out into the open with my heart the battlefield of a myriad contending passions.
I reached the hill, overturned the cairn, and set out on my homeward way, hardly giving but one thought to the purport of my errand or the two fugitives whom it was my mission to save, so filled was my mind with my own trouble. The road home was long and arduous; and more, I had to creep often like an adder lest I should be spied and traced by some chance dragoon. The weather was dull and cold, and a slight snow, the first token of winter, sprinkled the moor. The heather was wet, the long rushes dripped and shivered, and in the little trenches the peat-water lay black as ink. A smell of damp hung over all things, an odor of rotten-leaves and soaked earth. The heavy mist rolled in volumes close to the ground and choked me as I bent low. Every little while I stumbled into a bog, and foully bedaubed my clothes. I think that I must have strayed a little from the straight path, for I took near twice as long to return as to go. A swollen stream delayed me, for I had to traverse its bank for a mile ere I could cross.
In truth, I cannot put down on paper my full loathing of the place. I had hated the moors on my first day’s journey, but now I hated them with a tenfold hatred. For each whiff of sodden air, each spit of chill rain brought back to my mind all the difficulty of my present state. Then I had always the vision of Anne sitting at home by the fire, warm, clean, and dainty, the very counter of the foul morasses in which I labored, and where the men I had striven to rescue were thought to lie hidden. My loathing was so great that I could scarce find it in my heart to travel the weary miles to the manse, every step being taken solely on the fear of remaining behind. To make it worse, there would come to vex me old airs of France, airs of childhood and my adventurous youth, fraught for me with memories of gay nights and brave friends. I own that I could have wept to think of them and find myself all the while in this inhospitable desert.
’Twould be near mid-day, I think, when I came to the manse door, glad that my journey was ended. Anne let me in, and in a moment all was changed. The fire crackled in the room, and the light danced on the great volumes on the shelves. The gray winter was shut out and a tranquil summer reigned within. Anne, like a Lent lily, so fair was she, sat sewing by the hearth.
“You are returned,” she said coldly.
“I am returned,” I said severely, for her callousness to the danger of her father was awful to witness, though in my heart of hearts I could not have wished it otherwise. As she sat there, with her white arms moving athwart her lap, and her hair tossed over her shoulders, I could have clasped her to my heart. Nay, I had almost done so, had I not gripped my chair, and sat with pale face and dazed eyes till the fit had passed. I have told you ere now how my feelings toward Anne had changed from interest to something not unlike a passionate love. It had been a thing of secret growth, and I scarcely knew it till I found myself in the midst of it. I tried to smother it hourly, when my better nature was in the ascendant, and hourly I was overthrown in the contest I fought against terrible odds. ’Twas not hard to see from her longing eyes and timorous conduct that to her I was the greater half of the world. I had but to call to her and she would come. And yet — God knows how I stifled that cry.
At length I rose and strode out into the garden to cool my burning head. The sleet was even grateful to me, and I bared my brow till hair and skin were wet with the rain. Down by the rows of birch trees I walked, past the rough ground where the pot-herbs were grown, till I came to the shady green lawn. Up and down it I passed, striving hard with my honor and my love, fighting that battle which all must fight some time or other in their lives and be victorious or vanquished forever.
Suddenly, to my wonder, I saw a face looking at me from beneath a tuft of elderberry.
I drew back, looked again, and at the second glance I recognized it. ’Twas the face of Master Henry Semple of Clachlands — and the hills.
’Twas liker the face of a wild goat than a man. The thin features stood out so strongly that all the rest seemed to fall back from them. The long, ragged growth of hair on lip and chin, and the dirt on his cheeks, made him unlike my friend of the past. But the memorable change was in his eyes, which glowed large and lustrous, with the whites greatly extended, and all tinged with a yellow hue. Fear and privation had done their work, and before me stood their finished product.
“Good Heavens, Henry! What brings you here, and how have you fared?”
He stared at me without replying, which I noted as curious.
“Where is Anne?” he asked huskily.
“She is in the house, well and unscathed. Shall I call her to you?”
“Nay, for God’s sake, nay! I am no pretty sight for a young maid. You say she is well?”
“Ay, very well. But how is the minister?”
“Alas, he is all but gone. The chill has entered his bones, and even now he may be passing. The child will soon be an orphan.”
“Oh, I am no worse than the others on whom the Lord’s hand is laid. There is a ringing in my head and a pain at my heart, but I am still hale and fit to testify to the truth. Oh, man, ‘twill ill befa’ those in the day of judgment who eat the bread of idleness and dwell in peace in thae weary times.”
“Come into the house; or nay, I will fetch you food and clothing.”
“Nay, bring nought for me. I would rather live in rags and sup on a crust than be habited in purple and fare sumptuously. I ask ye but one thing: let the maid walk in the garden that I may see her. And, oh, man! I thank ye for your kindness to me and mine. I pray the Lord ilka night to think on ye here.”
I could not trust myself to speak.
“I will do as you wish,” I said, and without another word set off sharply for the house.
I entered the sitting room wearily, and flung myself on a chair. Anne sat sewing as before. She started as I entered, and I saw the color rise to her cheeks and brow.
“You are pale, my dear,” I said; “the day is none so bad, and ’twould do you no ill to walk round the garden to the gate. I have just been there, and, would you believe it, the grass is still wondrous green.”
She rose demurely and obediently as if my word were the law of her life.
“Pray bring me a sprig of ivy from the gate-side,” I cried after her, laughing, “to show me that you have been there.”
I sat and kicked my heels till her return in a miserable state of impatience. I could not have refused to let the man see his own betrothed, but God only knew what desperate act he might do. He might spring out and clasp her in his arms; she, I knew, had not a shred of affection left for him; she would be cold and resentful; he would suspect, and then — what an end there might be to it all! I longed to hear the sound of her returning footsteps.
She came in soon, and sat down in her wonted chair by the fire.
“There’s your ivy, John,” said she; “’tis raw and chilly in the garden, and I love the fireside better.”
“’Tis well,” I thought, “she has not seen Master Semple.” Now I could not suffer him to depart without meeting him again, partly out of pity for the man, partly to assure my own mind that no harm would come of it. So I feigned an errand and went out.
I found him, as I guessed, still in the elder-bush, a tenfold stranger sight than before. His eyes burned uncannily. His thin cheeks seemed almost transparent with the tension of the bones, and he chewed his lips unceasingly. At the sight of me he came out and stood before me, as wild a figure as I ever hope to see — clothes in tatters, hair unkempt, and skin all foul with the dirt of the moors. His back was bowed, and his knees seemed to have lost all strength, for they tottered against one another. I prayed that his sufferings might not have turned him mad.
At the first word he spake I was convinced of it.
“I have seen her, I have seen her!” he cried. “She is more fair than a fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon. Oh, I have dreamed of her by night among the hills, and seen her face close to me and tried to catch it, but ’twas gone. Oh, man, John, get down on your knees, and pray to God to make you worthy to have the charge of such a treasure. Had the Lord not foreordained that she should me mine, I should ne’er have lifted up my eyes to her, for who am I?”
“For God’s sake, man,” I broke in, “tell me where you are going, and be about it quick, for you may be in instant danger.”
“Ay,” says he, “you are right. I must be gone. I have seen enough. I maun away to the deserts and caves of the rocks, and it may be lang, lang ere I come back. But my love winna forget me. Na, na; the Lord hath appointed unto me that I shall sit at his right hand on the last, the great day, and she shall be by my side. For oh, she is the only one of her mother; she is the choice one of her that bare her; the daughters saw her and blessed her; yea, the queens and concubines, and they praised her.” And with some like gibberish from the Scriptures he disappeared through the bushes, and next minute I saw him running along the moor toward the hills.
These were no love-sick ravings, but the wild cries of a madman, one whose reason had gone forever. I walked back slowly to the house. It seemed almost profane to think of Anne, so wholesome and sane, in the same thought as this foul idiot; and yet this man had been once as whole in mind and body as myself; he had suffered in a valiant cause; and I was bound to him by the strongest of all bonds — my plighted word. I groaned inwardly as I shut the house-door behind me and entered into the arena of my struggles.
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John Buchan's first published work... inspired by MOMH???