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.