I have heard it said by wise folk in France that the autumn is of all seasons of the year the most trying to the health of a soldier; since, for one accustomed to the heat of action and the fire and fury of swift encounter, the decay of summer, the moist, rotting air, and the first chill preludes of winter are hard to stand. This may be true of our own autumn days, but in the north country ’twas otherwise. For there the weather was as sharp and clear as spring, and the only signs of the season were the red leaves and the brown desolate moors. Lindean was built on the slope of the hills, with the steeps behind it, and a vista of level land to the front: so one could watch from the window the red woods of the low country, and see the stream, turgid with past rains, tearing through the meadows. The sun rose in the morning in a blaze of gold and crimson; the days were temperately warm, the afternoons bright, and the evening another procession of colors. ’Twas all so beautiful that I found it hard to keep my thoughts at all on the wanderers in the hills and to think of the house as under a dark shadow.
And if ’twas hard to do this, ’twas still harder to look upon Anne as a mourning daughter. For the first few days she had been pale and silent, going about her household duties as was her wont, speaking rarely, and then but to call me to meals. But now the pain of the departure seemed to have gone, and though still quiet as ever, there was no melancholy in her air; but with a certain cheerful gravity she passed in and out in my sight. At first I had had many plans to console her; judge then of my delight to find them needless. She was a brave maid, I thought, and little like the common, who could see the folly of sighing, and set herself to hope and work as best she could.
The days passed easily enough for me, for I could take Saladin and ride through the countryside, keeping always far from Clachlands; or the books in the house would stand me in good stead for entertainment. With the evenings ’twas different. When the lamp was lit, and the fire burned, ’twas hard to find some method to make the hours go by. I am not a man easily moved, as I have said; and yet I took shame to myself to think of the minister and Master Henry in the cold bogs, and Anne and myself before a great blaze. Again and again I could have kicked the logs off to ease my conscience, and was only held back by respect for the girl. But, of a surety, if she had but given me the word, I would have been content to sit in the fireless room and enjoy the approval of my heart.
She played no chess; indeed, I do not believe there was a board in the house; nor was there any other sport wherewith to beguile the long evenings. Reading she cared little for, and but for her embroidery work I know not what she would have set her hand to. So, as she worked with her threads I tried to enliven the time with some account of my adventures in past days, and some of the old gallant tales with which I was familiar. She heard me gladly, listening as no comrade by the tavern-board ever listened; and though, for the sake of decency, I was obliged to leave out many of the more diverting, yet I flatter myself I won her interest and made the time less dreary. I ranged over all my own experience and the memory of those tales which I had heard from others — and those who know anything of me know that that is not small. I told her of exploits in the Indies and Spain, in Germany and the Low Countries, and in far Muscovy, and ’twas no little pleasure to see her eager eyes dance and sparkle at a jest, or grow sad at a sorrowful episode. Ma vie! She had wonderful eyes — the most wonderful I have ever seen. They were gray in the morning and brown at noonday; now sparkling, but for the most part fixedly grave and serene. ’Twas for such eyes, I fancy, that men have done all the temerarious deeds concerning womankind which history records.
It must not be supposed that our life was a lively one, or aught approaching gayety. The talking fell mostly to my lot, for she had a great habit of silence, acquired from her lonely dwelling-place. Yet I moved her more than once to talk about herself.
I heard of her mother, a distant cousin of Master Semple’s father; of her death when Anne was but a child of seven; and of the solitary years since, spent in study under her father’s direction, in household work, or in acts of mercy to the poor. She spoke of her father often, and always in such a way that I could judge of a great affection between them. Of her lover I never heard, and, now that I think the matter over, ’twas no more than fitting. Once, indeed, I stumbled upon his name by chance in the course of talk, but as she blushed and started, I vowed to fight shy of it ever after.
As we knew well before, no message from the hills could be sent, since the moors were watched as closely as the gateway of a prison. This added to the unpleasantness of the position of each of us. In Anne’s case there was the harassing doubt about the safety of her kinsfolk, that sickening anxiety which saps the courage even of strong men. Also, it rendered my duties ten times harder. For, had there been any communication between the father or the lover and the maid, I should have felt less like a St. Anthony in the desert. As it was, I had to fight with a terrible sense of responsibility and unlimited power for evil, and God knows how hard that is for any Christian to strive with. ’Twould have been no very hard thing to shut myself in a room, or bide outside all day, and never utter a word to Anne save only the most necessary; but I was touched by the girl’s loneliness and sorrows, and, moreover, I conceived it to be a strange way of executing a duty, to flee from it altogether. I was there to watch over her, and I swore by the Holy Mother to keep the very letter of my oath.
And so the days dragged by till September was all but gone. I have always loved the sky and the vicissitudes of weather, and to this hour the impression of these autumn evenings is clear fixed on my mind. Strangely enough for that north country, they were not cold, but mild, with a sort of acrid mildness; a late summer, with the rigors of winter underlying, like a silken glove over a steel gauntlet.
One such afternoon I remember, when Anne sat busy at some needlework on the low bench by the door, and I came and joined her. She had wonderful grace of body, and ’twas a pleasure to watch every movement of her arm as she stitched. I sat silently regarding the landscape, the woods streaking the bare fields, the thin outline of hills beyond, the smoke rising from Clachlands’ chimneys, and above all, the sun firing the great pool in the river, and flaming among clouds in the west. Something of the spirit of the place seemed to have entered into the girl, for she laid aside her needlework after a while and gazed with brimming eyes on the scene. So we sat, feasting our eyes on the picture, each thinking strange thoughts, I doubt not. By and by she spoke.
“Is France, that you love so well, more beautiful than this, M. de Rohaine?” she asked timidly.
“Ay, more beautiful, but not like this; no, not like this.”
“And what is it like? I have never seen any place other than this.”
“Oh, how shall I tell of it?” I cried. “’Tis more fair than words. We have no rough hills like these, nor torrents like the Lin there; but there is a great broad stream by Rohaine, as smooth as a mill-pond, where you can row in the evenings, and hear the lads and lasses singing love songs. Then there are great quiet meadows, where the kine browse, where the air is so still that one can sleep at a thought. There are woods, too — ah! such woods — stretching up hill, and down dale, as green as spring can make them, with long avenues where men may ride; and, perhaps, at the heart of all, some old chateau, all hung with vines and creepers, where the peaches ripen on the walls and the fountain plashes all the summer’s day. Bah! I can hardly bear to think on it, ’tis so dear and home-like;” and I turned away suddenly, for I felt my voice catch in my throat.
“What hills are yonder?” I asked abruptly, to hide my feelings.
Anne looked up.
“The hills beyond the little green ridge you mean?” she says. “That will be over by Eskdalemuir and the top of the Ettrick Water. I have heard my father speak often of them, for they say that many of the godly find shelter there.”
“Many of the godly!”
I turned round sharply, though what there was in the phrase to cause wonder I cannot see. She spoke but as she had heard the men of her house speak; yet the words fell strangely on my ears, for by a curious process of thinking I had already begun to separate the girl from the rest of the folk in the place, and look on her as something nearer in sympathy to myself. Faugh? that is not the way to put it. I mean that she had listened so much to my tales that I had all but come to look upon her as a countrywoman of mine.
“Are you dull here, Anne?” I asked, for I had come to use the familiar name, and she in turn would sometimes call me Jean — and very prettily it sat on her tongue. “Do you never wish to go elsewhere and see the world?”
“Nay,” she said. “I had scarce thought about the world at all. ’Tis a place I have little to do with, and I am content to dwell here forever, if it be God’s will. But I should love to see your France, that you speak of.”
This seemed truly a desire for gratifying which there was little chance; so I changed the subject of our converse, and asked her if she ever sang.
“Ay, I have learned to sing two or three songs, old ballads of the countryside, for though my father like it little, Henry takes a pleasure in hearing them. I will sing you one if you wish it.” And when I bade her do so, she laid down her work, which she had taken up again, and broke into a curious plaintive melody. I cannot describe it. ’Twould be as easy to describe the singing of the wind in the tree-tops. It minded me, I cannot tell how, of a mountain burn, falling into pools and rippling over little shoals of gravel. Now ’twas full and strong, and now ’twas so eerie and wild that it was more like a curlew’s note than any human thing. The story was about a knight who sailed to Norway on some king’s errand and never returned, and of his lady who waited long days at home, weeping for him who should never come back to her. I did not understand it fully, for ’twas in an old patois of the country, but I could feel its beauty. When she had finished the tears stood in my eyes, and I thought of the friends I had left, whom I might see no more.
But when I looked at her, to my amazement, there was no sign of feeling in her face.
“’Tis a song I have sung often,” she said, “but I do not like it. ’Tis no better than the ringing of a bell at a funeral.”
“Then,” said I, wishing to make her cheerful, “I will sing you a gay song of my own country. The folk dance to it on the Sunday nights at Rohaine, when blind RenÃ© plays the fiddle.” So I broke into the “May song,” with its lilting refrain.
Anne listened intently, her face full of pleasure, and at the second verse she began to beat the tune with her foot. She, poor thing, had never danced, had never felt the ecstasy of motion; but since all mankind is alike in nature, her blood stirred at the tune. So I sang her another chanson, this time an old love ballad, and then again a war song. But by this time the darkness was growing around us, so we must needs re-enter the house; and as I followed I could hear her humming the choruses with a curious delight.
“So ho, Mistress Anne,” thought I, “you are not the little country mouse that I had thought you, but as full of spirit as a caged hawk. Faith, the town would make a brave lass of you, were you but there!”
From this hour I may date the beginning of the better understanding — I might almost call it friendship — between the two of us. She had been bred among moorland solitudes, and her sole companions had been solemn praying folk; yet, to my wonder, I found in her a nature loving gayety and mirth, songs and bright colors — a grace which her grave deportment did but the more set off. So she came soon to look at me with a kindly face, doing little acts of kindness every now and then in some way or other, which I took to be the return which she desired to make for my clumsy efforts to please her.