Within an hour after I had left him, Waster Lunny walked into the school-house and handed me his snuff-mull, which I declined politely. It was with this ceremony that we usually opened our conversations.
“I’ve seen the post,” he said, “and he tells me there has been a queer ploy at the Spittal. It’s a wonder the marriage hasna been turned into a burial, and all because o’ that Highland stirk, Lauchlan Campbell.”
Waster Lunny was a man who had to retrace his steps in telling a story if he tried short cuts, and so my custom was to wait patiently while he delved through the ploughed fields that always lay between him and his destination.
“As you ken, Rintoul’s so little o’ a Scotchman that he’s no muckle better than an Englisher. That maun be the reason he hadna mair sense than to tramp on a Highlandman’s ancestors, as he tried to tramp on Lauchlan’s this day.”
“If Lord Rintoul insulted the piper,” I suggested, giving the farmer a helping hand cautiously, “it would be through inadvertence. Rintoul only bought the Spittal a year ago, and until then, I daresay, he had seldom been on our side of the Border.”
This was a foolish interruption, for it set Waster Lunny off in a new direction.
“That’s what Elspeth says. Says she, ‘When the earl has grand estates in England, what for does he come to a barren place like the Spittal to be married? 226 It’s gey like,’ she says, ‘as if he wanted the marriage to be got by quietly; a thing,’ says she, ‘that no woman can stand. Furthermore,’ Elspeth says, ‘how has the marriage been postponed twice?’ We ken what the servants at the Spittal says to that, namely, that the young lady is no keen to take him, but Elspeth winna listen to sic arguments. She says either the earl had grown timid (as mony a man does) when the wedding-day drew near, or else his sister that keeps his house is mad at the thocht o’ losing her place; but as for the young leddy’s being sweer, says Elspeth, ‘an earl’s an earl however auld he is, and a lassie’s a lassie however young she is, and weel she kens you’re never sure o’ a man’s no changing his mind about you till you’re tied to him by law, after which it doesna so muckle matter whether he changes his mind about you or no.’ Ay, there’s a quirk in it some gait, dominie; but it’s a deep water Elspeth canna bottom.”
“It is,” I agreed; “but you were to tell me what Birse told you of the disturbance at the Spittal.”
“Ay, weel,” he answered, “the post puts the wite o’t on her little leddyship, as they call her, though she winna be a leddyship till the morn. All I can say is that if the earl was saft enough to do sic a thing out of fondness for her, it’s time he was married on her, so that he may come to his senses again. That’s what I say; but Elspeth conters me, of course, and says she, ‘If the young leddy was so careless o’ insulting other folks’ ancestors, it proves she has nane o’ her ain; for them that has china plates themsel’s is the maist careful no to break the china plates of others.’”
“But what was the insult? Was Lauchlan dismissed?”
“Na, faags! It was waur than that. Dominie, you’re dull in the uptake compared to Elspeth. I hadna telled her half the story afore she jaloused the rest. However, to begin again; there’s great feasting and rejoicings gaen on at the Spittal the now, and also a banquet, 227 which the post says is twa dinners in one. Weel, there’s a curran Ogilvys among the guests, and it was them that egged on her little leddyship to make the daring proposal to the earl. What was the proposal? It was no less than that the twa pipers should be ordered to play ‘The Bonny House o’ Airlie.’ Dominie, I wonder you can tak it so calm when you ken that’s the Ogilvy’s sang, and that it’s aimed at the clan o’ Campbell.”
“Pooh!” I said. “The Ogilvys and the Campbells used to be mortal enemies, but the feud has been long forgotten.”
“Ay, I’ve heard tell,” Waster Lunny said sceptically, “that Airlie and Argyle shakes hands now like Christians; but I’m thinking that’s just afore the Queen. Dinna speak now, for I’m in the thick o’t. Her little leddyship was all hinging in gold and jewels, the which winna be her ain till the morn; and she leans ower to the earl and whispers to him to get the pipers to play ‘The Bonny House.’ He wasna willing, for says he, ‘There’s Ogilvys at the table, and ane o’ the pipers is a Campbell, and we’ll better let sleeping dogs lie.’ However, the Ogilvys lauched at his caution; and he was so infatuated wi’ her little leddyship that he gae in, and he cried out to the pipers to strike up ‘The Bonny House.’”
Waster Lunny pulled his chair nearer me and rested his hand on my knees.
“Dominie,” he said in a voice that fell now and again into a whisper, “them looking on swears that when Lauchlan Campbell heard these monstrous orders his face became ugly and black, so that they kent in a jiffy what he would do. It’s said a’ body jumped back frae him in a sudden dread, except poor Angus, the other piper, wha was busy tuning up for ‘The Bonny House.’ Weel, Angus had got no farther in the tune than the first skirl when Lauchlan louped at him, and ripped 228 up the startled crittur’s pipes wi’ his dirk. The pipes gae a roar o’ agony like a stuck swine, and fell gasping on the floor. What happened next was that Lauchlan wi’ his dirk handy for onybody that micht try to stop him, marched once round the table, playing ‘The Campbells are Coming,’ and then straucht out o’ the Spittal, his chest far afore him, and his head so weel back that he could see what was going on ahint. Frae the Spittal to here he never stopped that fearsome tune, and I’se warrant he’s blawing away at it at this moment through the streets o’ Thrums.”
Waster Lunny was not in his usual spirits, or he would have repeated his story before he left me, for he had usually as much difficulty in coming to an end as in finding a beginning. The drought was to him as serious a matter as death in the house, and as little to be forgotten for a lengthened period.
“There’s to be a prayer-meeting for rain in the Auld Licht kirk the night,” he told me as I escorted him as far as my side of the Quharity, now almost a dead stream, pitiable to see, “and I’m gaen; though I’m sweer to leave thae puir cattle o’ mine. You should see how they look at me when I gie them mair o’ that rotten grass to eat. It’s eneuch to mak a man greet, for what richt hae I to keep kye when I canna meat them?”
Waster Lunny has said to me more than once that the great surprise of his life was when Elspeth was willing to take him. Many a time, however, I have seen that in him which might have made any weaver’s daughter proud of such a man, and I saw it again when we came to the river side.
“I’m no ane o’ thae farmers,” he said, truthfully, “that’s aye girding at the weather, and Elspeth and me kens that we hae been dealt wi’ bountifully since we took this farm wi’ gey anxious hearts. That woman, dominie, is eneuch to put a brave face on a coward, and 229 it’s no langer syne than yestreen when I was sitting in the dumps, looking at the aurora borealis, which I canna but regard as a messenger o’ woe, that she put her hand on my shoulder and she says, ‘Waster Lunny, twenty year syne we began life thegither wi’ nothing but the claethes on our back, and an it please God we can begin it again, for I hae you and you hae me, and I’m no cast down if you’re no.’ Dominie, is there mony sic women in the warld as that?”
“Many a one,” I said.
“Ay, man, it shamed me, for I hae a kind o’ delight in angering Elspeth, just to see what she’ll say. I could hae ta’en her on my knee at that minute, but the bairns was there, and so it wouldna hae dune. But I cheered her up, for, after all, the drought canna put us so far back as we was twenty years syne, unless it’s true what my father said, that the aurora borealis is the devil’s rainbow. I saw it sax times in July month, and it made me shut my een. You was out admiring it, dominie, but I can never forget that it was seen in the year twelve just afore the great storm. I was only a laddie then, but I mind how that awful wind stripped a’ the standing corn in the glen in less time than we’ve been here at the water’s edge. It was called the deil’s besom. My father’s hinmost words to me was, ‘It’s time eneuch to greet, laddie, when you see the aurora borealis.’ I mind he was so complete ruined in an hour that he had to apply for relief frae the poor’s rates. Think o’ that, and him a proud man. He would tak’ nothing till one winter day when we was a’ starving, and syne I gaed wi’ him to speir for’t, and he telled me to grip his hand ticht, so that the cauldness o’ mine micht gie him courage. They were doling out the charity in the Town’s House, and I had never been in’t afore. I canna look at it now without thinking o’ that day when me and my father gaed up the stair thegither. Mr. Duthie was presiding at the time, and he wasna 230 muckle older than Mr. Dishart is now. I mind he speired for proof that we was needing, and my father couldna speak. He just pointed at me. ‘But you have a good coat on your back yoursel’,’ Mr. Duthie said, for there were mony waiting, sair needing. ‘It was lended him to come here,’ I cried, and without a word my father opened the coat, and they saw he had nothing on aneath, and his skin blue wi ’cauld. Dominie, Mr. Duthie handed him one shilling and saxpence, and my father’s fingers closed greedily on’t for a minute, and syne it fell to the ground. They put it back in his hand, and it slipped out again, and Mr. Duthie gave it back to him, saying, ‘Are you so cauld as that?’ But, oh, man, it wasna cauld that did it, but shame o’ being on the rates. The blood a’ ran to my father’s head, and syne left it as quick, and he flung down the siller and walked out o’ the Town House wi’ me running after him. We warstled through that winter, God kens how, and it’s near a pleasure to me to think o’t now, for, rain or no rain, I can never be reduced to sic straits again.”
The farmer crossed the water without using the stilts which were no longer necessary, and I little thought, as I returned to the school-house, what terrible things were to happen before he could offer me his snuff-mull again. Serious as his talk had been it was neither of drought nor of the incident at the Spittal that I sat down to think. My anxiety about Gavin came back to me until I was like a man imprisoned between walls of his own building. It may be that my presentiments of that afternoon look gloomier now than they were, because I cannot return to them save over a night of agony, black enough to darken any time connected with it. Perhaps my spirits only fell as the wind rose, for wind ever takes me back to Harvie, and when I think of Harvie my thoughts are of the saddest. I know that I sat for some hours, now seeing Gavin pay the penalty 231 of marrying the Egyptian, and again drifting back to my days with Margaret, until the wind took to playing tricks with me, so that I heard Adam Dishart enter our home by the sea every time the school-house door shook.
I became used to the illusion after starting several times, and thus when the door did open, about seven o’clock, it was only the wind rushing to my fire like a shivering dog that made me turn my head. Then I saw the Egyptian staring at me, and though her sudden appearance on my threshold was a strange thing, I forgot it in the whiteness of her face. She was looking at me like one who has asked a question of life or death, and stopped her heart for the reply.
“What is it?” I cried, and for a moment I believe I was glad she did not answer. She seemed to have told me already as much as I could bear.
“He has not heard,” she said aloud in an expressionless voice, and, turning, would have slipped away without another word.
“Is any one dead?” I asked, seizing her hands and letting them fall, they were so clammy. She nodded, and trying to speak could not.
“He is dead,” she said at last in a whisper. “Mr. Dishart is dead,” and she sat down quietly.
At that I covered my face, crying, “God help Margaret!” and then she rose, saying fiercely, so that I drew back from her, “There is no Margaret; he only cared for me.”
“She is his mother,” I said hoarsely, and then she smiled to me, so that I thought her a harmless mad thing. “He was killed by a piper called Lauchlan Campbell,” she said, looking up at me suddenly. “It was my fault.”
“Poor Margaret!” I wailed.
“And poor Babbie,” she entreated pathetically; “will no one say, ‘Poor Babbie’?”
“How did it happen?” I asked more than once, but the Egyptian was only with me in the body, and she did not hear. I might have been talking to some one a mile away whom a telescope had drawn near my eyes.
When I put on my bonnet, however, she knew that I was going to Thrums, and she rose and walked to the door, looking behind to see that I followed.
“You must not come,” I said harshly, but her hand started to her heart as if I had shot her, and I added quickly, “Come.” We were already some distance on our way before I repeated my question.
“What matter how it happened?” she answered piteously, and they were words of which I felt the force. But when she said a little later, “I thought you would say it is not true,” I took courage, and forced her to tell me all she knew. She sobbed while she spoke, if one may sob without tears.
“I heard of it at the Spittal,” she said. “The news broke out suddenly there that the piper had quarrelled with some one in Thrums, and that in trying to separate them Mr. Dishart was stabbed. There is no doubt of its truth.”
“We should have heard of it here,” I said hopefully, “before the news reached the Spittal. It cannot be true.”
“It was brought to the Spittal,” she answered, “by the hill road.”
Then my spirits sank again, for I knew that this was possible. There is a path, steep but short, across the hills between Thrums and the top of the glen, which Mr. Glendinning took frequently when he had to preach at both places on the same Sabbath. It is still called the Minister’s Road.
“Yet if the earl had believed it he would have sent some one into Thrums for particulars,” I said, grasping at such comfort as I could make.
“He does believe it,” she answered. “He told me of it himself.”
You see the Egyptian was careless of her secret now; but what was that secret to me? An hour ago it would have been much, and already it was not worth listening to. If she had begun to tell me why Lord Rintoul took a gypsy girl into his confidence I should not have heard her.
“I ran quickly,” she said. “Even if a messenger was sent he might be behind me.”
Was it her words or the tramp of a horse that made us turn our heads at that moment? I know not. But far back in a twist of the road we saw a horseman approaching at such a reckless pace that I thought he was on a runaway. We stopped instinctively, and waited for him, and twice he disappeared in hollows of the road, and then was suddenly tearing down upon us. I recognised in him young Mr. McKenzie, a relative of Rintoul, and I stretched out my arms to compel him to draw up. He misunderstood my motive, and was raising his whip threateningly, when he saw the Egyptian. It is not too much to say that he swayed in the saddle. The horse galloped on, though he had lost hold of the reins. He looked behind until he rounded a corner, and I never saw such amazement mixed with incredulity on a human face. For some minutes I expected to see him coming back, but when he did not I said wonderingly to the Egyptian —
“He knew you.”
“Did he?” she answered indifferently, and I think we spoke no more until we were in Windyghoul. Soon we were barely conscious of each other’s presence. Never since have I walked between the school-house and Thrums in so short a time, nor seen so little on the way.
In the Egyptian’s eyes, I suppose, was a picture of Gavin lying dead; but if her grief had killed her thinking faculties, mine, that was only less keen because I had been struck down once before, had set all the wheels of my brain in action. For it seemed to me that the hour had come when I must disclose myself to Margaret.
I had realised always that if such a necessity did arise it could only be caused by Gavin’s premature death, or by his proving a bad son to her. Some may wonder that I could have looked calmly thus far into the possible, but I reply that the night of Adam Dishart’s homecoming had made of me a man whom the future could not surprise again. Though I saw Gavin and his mother happy in our Auld Licht manse, that did not prevent my considering the contingencies which might leave her without a son. In the school-house I had brooded over them as one may think over moves on a draught-board. It may have been idle, but it was done that I might know how to act best for Margaret if anything untoward occurred. The time for such action had come. Gavin’s death had struck me hard, but it did not crush me. I was not unprepared. I was going to Margaret now.
What did I see as I walked quickly along the glen road, with Babbie silent by my side, and I doubt not pods of the broom cracking all around us? I saw myself entering the Auld Licht manse, where Margaret sat weeping over the body of Gavin, and there was none to break my coming to her, for none but she and I knew what had been.
I saw my Margaret again, so fragile now, so thin the wrists, her hair turned grey. No nearer could I go, but stopped at the door, grieving for her, and at last saying her name aloud.
I saw her raise her face, and look upon me for the first time for eighteen years. She did not scream at sight of me, for the body of her son lay between us, and bridged the gulf that Adam Dishart had made.
I saw myself draw near her reverently and say, “Margaret, he is dead, and that is why I have come back,” and I saw her put her arms around my neck as she often did long ago.
But it was not to be. Never since that night at Harvie have I spoken to Margaret.
The Egyptian and I were to come to Windyghoul before I heard her speak. She was not addressing me. Here Gavin and she had met first, and she was talking of that meeting to herself.
“It was there,” I heard her say softly, as she gazed at the bush beneath which she had seen him shaking his fist at her on the night of the riots. A little farther on she stopped where a path from Windyghoul sets off for the well in the wood. She looked up it wistfully, and there I left her behind, and pressed on to the mudhouse to ask Nanny Webster if the minister was dead. Nanny’s gate was swinging in the wind, but her door was shut, and for a moment I stood at it like a coward, afraid to enter and hear the worst.
The house was empty. I turned from it relieved, as if I had got a respite, and while I stood in the garden the Egyptian came to me shuddering, her twitching face asking the question that would not leave her lips.
“There is no one in the house,” I said. “Nanny is perhaps at the well.”
But the gypsy went inside, and pointing to the fire said, “It has been out for hours. Do you not see? The murder has drawn every one into Thrums.”
So I feared. A dreadful night was to pass before I knew that this was the day of the release of Sanders Webster, and that frail Nanny had walked into Tilliedrum to meet him at the prison gate.
Babbie sank upon a stool, so weak that I doubt whether she heard me tell her to wait there until my return. I hurried into Thrums, not by the hill, though it is the shorter way, but by the Roods, for I must hear all before I ventured to approach the manse. From Windyghoul to the top of the Roods it is a climb and then a steep descent. The road has no sooner reached its highest point than it begins to fall in the straight line of houses called the Roods, and thus I came upon a full view of the street at once. A cart was laboring up it. There were women sitting on stones at their doors, and girls playing at palaulays, and out of the house nearest me came a black figure. My eyes failed me; I was asking so much from them. They made him tall and short, and spare and stout, so that I knew it was Gavin, and yet, looking again, feared, but all the time, I think, I knew it was he.