Meanwhile the Auld Lichts were in church, waiting for their minister, and it was a full meeting, because nearly every well in Thrums had been scooped dry by anxious palms. Yet not all were there to ask God’s rain for themselves. Old Charles Yuill was in his pew, after dreaming thrice that he would break up with the drought; and Bell Christison had come, though her man lay dead at home, and she thought it could matter no more to her how things went in the world.
You, who do not love that little congregation, would have said that they were waiting placidly. But probably so simple a woman as Meggy Rattray could have deceived you into believing that because her eyes were downcast she did not notice who put the three-penny-bit in the plate. A few men were unaware that the bell was working overtime, most of them farmers with their eyes on the windows, but all the women at least were wondering. They knew better, however, than to bring their thoughts to their faces, and none sought to catch another’s eye. The men-folk looked heavily at their hats in the seats in front. Even when Hendry Munn, instead of marching to the pulpit with the big Bible in his hands, came as far as the plate and signed to Peter Tosh, elder, that he was wanted in the vestry, you could not have guessed how every woman there, except Bell Christison, wished she was Peter Tosh. Peter was so taken aback that he merely gaped at Hendry, until suddenly he knew that his five daughters 253 were furious with him, when he dived for his hat and staggered to the vestry with his mouth open. His boots cheeped all the way, but no one looked up.
“I hadna noticed the minister was lang in coming,” Waster Lunny told me afterward, “but Elspeth noticed it, and with a quickness that baffles me she saw I was thinking o’ other things. So she let out her foot at me. I gae a low cough to let her ken I wasna sleeping, but in a minute out goes her foot again. Ay, syne I thocht I micht hae dropped my hanky into Snecky Hobart’s pew, but no, it was in my tails. Yet her hand was on the board, and she was working her fingers in a way that I kent meant she would like to shake me. Next I looked to see if I was sitting on her frock, the which tries a woman sair, but I wasna. ‘Does she want to change Bibles wi’ me?’ I wondered; ‘or is she sliding yont a peppermint to me?’ It was neither, so I edged as far frae her as I could gang. Weel, would you credit it, I saw her body coming nearer me inch by inch, though she was looking straucht afore her, till she was within kick o’ me, and then out again goes her foot. At that, dominie, I lost patience, and I whispered, fierce-like, ‘Keep your foot to yoursel’, you limmer!’ Ay, her intent, you see, was to waken me to what was gaen on, but I couldna be expected to ken that.”
In the vestry Hendry Munn was now holding counsel with three elders, of whom the chief was Lang Tammas.
“The laddie I sent to the manse,” Hendry said, “canna be back this five minutes, and the question is how we’re to fill up that time. I’ll ring no langer, for the bell has been in a passion ever since a quarter-past eight. It’s as sweer to clang past the quarter as a horse to gallop by its stable.”
“You could gang to your box and gie out a psalm, Tammas,” suggested John Spens.
“And would a psalm sung wi’ sic an object,” retorted the precentor, “mount higher, think you, than a bairn’s kite? I’ll insult the Almighty to screen no minister.”
“You’re screening him better by standing whaur you are,” said the imperturbable Hendry; “for as lang as you dinna show your face they’ll think it may be you that’s missing instead o’ Mr. Dishart.”
Indeed, Gavin’s appearance in church without the precentor would have been as surprising as Tammas’s without the minister. As certainly as the shutting of a money-box is followed by the turning of the key, did the precentor walk stiffly from the vestry to his box a toll of the bell in front of the minister. Tammas’s halfpenny rang in the plate as Gavin passed T’nowhead’s pew, and Gavin’s sixpence with the snapping-to of the precentor’s door. The two men might have been connected by a string that tightened at ten yards.
“The congregation ken me ower weel,” Tammas said, “to believe I would keep the Lord waiting.”
“And they are as sure o’ Mr. Dishart,” rejoined Spens, with spirit, though he feared the precentor on Sabbaths and at prayer-meetings. “You’re a hard man.”
“I speak the blunt truth,” Whamond answered.
“Ay,” said Spens, “and to tak’ credit for that may be like blawing that you’re ower honest to wear claethes.”
Hendry, who had gone to the door, returned now with the information that Mr. Dishart had left the manse two hours ago to pay visits, meaning to come to the prayer-meeting before he returned home.
“There’s a quirk in this, Hendry,” said Tosh. “Was it Mistress Dishart the laddie saw?”
“No,” Hendry replied. “It was Jean. She canna get to the meeting because the mistress is nervous in the manse by herself; and Jean didna like to tell her 255 that he’s missing, for fear o’ alarming her. What are we to do now?”
“He’s an unfaithful shepherd,” cried the precentor, while Hendry again went out. “I see it written on the walls.”
“I dinna,” said Spens doggedly.
“Because,” retorted Tammas, “having eyes you see not.”
“Tammas, I aye thocht you was fond o’ Mr. Dishart.”
“If my right eye were to offend me,” answered the precentor, “I would pluck it out. I suppose you think, and baith o’ you farmers too, that there’s no necessity for praying for rain the nicht? You’ll be content, will ye, if Mr. Dishart just drops in to the kirk some day, accidental-like, and offers up a bit prayer?”
“As for the rain,” Spens said, triumphantly, “I wouldna wonder though it’s here afore the minister. You canna deny, Peter Tosh, that there’s been a smell o’ rain in the air this twa hours back.”
“John,” Peter said agitatedly, “dinna speak so confidently. I’ve kent it,” he whispered, “since the day turned; but it wants to tak’ us by surprise, lad, and so I’m no letting on.”
“See that you dinna make an idol o’ the rain,” thundered Whamond. “Your thochts is no wi’ Him, but wi’ the clouds; and whaur your thochts are, there will your prayers stick also.”
“If you saw my lambs,” Tosh began; and then, ashamed of himself, said, looking upward, “He holds the rain in the hollow of His hand.”
“And He’s closing His neive ticht on’t again,” said the precentor solemnly. “Hearken to the wind rising!”
“God help me!” cried Tosh, wringing his hands. “Is it fair, think you,” he said, passionately addressing the sky, “to show your wrath wi’ Mr. Dishart by ruining my neeps?”
“You were richt, Tammas Whamond,” Spens said, 256 growing hard as he listened to the wind, “the sanctuary o’ the Lord has been profaned this nicht by him wha should be the chief pillar o’ the building.”
They were lowering brows that greeted Hendry when he returned to say that Mr. Dishart had been seen last on the hill with the Glen Quharity dominie.
“Some thinks,” said the kirk officer, “that he’s awa hunting for Rob Dow.”
“Nothing’ll excuse him,” replied Spens, “short o’ his having fallen over the quarry.”
Hendry’s was usually a blank face, but it must have looked troubled now, for Tosh was about to say, “Hendry, you’re keeping something back,” when the precentor said it before him.
“Wi’ that story o’ Mr. Dishart’s murder, no many hours auld yet,” the kirk officer replied evasively, “we should be wary o’ trusting gossip.”
“What hae you heard?”
“It’s through the town,” Hendry answered, “that a woman was wi’ the dominie.”
“A woman!” cried Tosh. “The woman there’s been sic talk about in connection wi’ the minister? Whaur are they now?”
“It’s no kent, but – the dominie was seen goin’ hame by himsel’.”
“Leaving the minister and her thegither!” cried the three men at once.
“Hendry Munn,” Tammas said sternly, “there’s mair about this; wha is the woman?”
“They are liars,” Hendry answered, and shut his mouth tight.
“Gie her a name, I say,” the precentor ordered, “or, as chief elder of this kirk, supported by mair than half o’ the Session, I command you to lift your hat and go.”
Hendry gave an appealing look to Tosh and Spens, but the precentor’s solemnity had cowed them.
“They say, then,” he answered sullenly, “that it’s the Egyptian. Yes, and I believe they ken.”
The two farmers drew back from this statement incredulously; but Tammas Whamond jumped at the kirk officer’s throat, and some who were in the church that night say they heard Hendry scream. Then the precentor’s fingers relaxed their grip, and he tottered into the middle of the room.
“Hendry,” he pleaded, holding out his arms pathetically, “tak’ back these words. Oh, man, have pity, and tak’ them back!”
But Hendry would not, and then Lang Tammas’s mouth worked convulsively, and he sobbed, crying, “Nobody kent it, but mair than mortal son, O God, I did love the lad!”
So seldom in a lifetime had any one seen into this man’s heart that Spens said, amazed:
“Tammas, Tammas Whamond, it’s no like you to break down.”
The rusty door of Whamond’s heart swung to.
“Who broke down?” he asked fiercely. “Let no member of this Session dare to break down till his work be done.”
“What work?” Tosh said uneasily. “We canna interfere.”
“I would rather resign,” Spens said, but shook when Whamond hurled these words at him:
“‘And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’”
“It mayna be true,” Hendry said eagerly.
“We’ll soon see.”
“He would gie her up,” said Tosh.
“Peter Tosh,” answered Whamond sternly, “I call upon you to dismiss the congregation.”
“Should we no rather haud the meeting oursel’s?”
“We have other work afore us,” replied the precentor.
“But what can I say?” Tosh asked nervously. “Should I offer up a prayer?”
“I warn you all,” broke in Hendry, “that though the congregation is sitting there quietly, they’ll be tigers for the meaning o’ this as soon as they’re in the street.”
“Let no ontruth be telled them,” said the precentor. “Peter Tosh, do your duty. John Spens, remain wi’ me.”
The church emptied silently, but a buzz of excitement arose outside. Many persons tried to enter the vestry, but were ordered away, and when Tosh joined his fellow-elders the people were collecting in animated groups in the square, or scattering through the wynds for news.
“And now,” said the precentor, “I call upon the three o’ you to come wi’ me. Hendry Munn, you gang first.”
“I maun bide ahint,” Hendry said, with a sudden fear, “to lock up the kirk.”
“I’ll lock up the kirk,” Whamond answered harshly.
“You maun gie me the keys, though,” entreated the kirk officer.
“I’ll take care o’ the keys,” said Whamond.
“I maun hae them,” Hendry said, “to open the kirk on Sabbath.”
The precentor locked the doors, and buttoned up the keys in his trousers pockets.
“Wha kens,” he said, in a voice of steel, “that the kirk’ll be open next Sabbath?”
“Hae some mercy on him, Tammas,” Spens implored. “He’s no twa-and-twenty.”
“Wha kens,” continued the precentor, “but that the next time this kirk is opened will be to preach it toom?”
“What road do we tak’?”
“The road to the hill, whaur he was seen last.”
It would be coming on for a quarter-past nine, and a misty night, when I reached the school-house, and I was so weary of mind and body that I sat down without taking off my bonnet. I had left the door open, and I remember listlessly watching the wind making a target of my candle, but never taking a sufficiently big breath to do more than frighten it. From this lethargy I was roused by the sound of wheels.
In the daytime our glen road leads to many parts, but in the night only to the doctor’s. Then the gallop of a horse makes farmers start up in bed and cry, “Who’s ill?” I went to my door and listened to the trap coming swiftly down the lonely glen, but I could not see it, for there was a trailing scarf of mist between the school-house and the road. Presently I heard the swish of the wheels in water, and so learned that they were crossing the ford to come to me. I had been unstrung by the events of the evening, and fear at once pressed thick upon me that this might be a sequel to them, as indeed it was.
While still out of sight the trap stopped, and I heard some one jump from it. Then came this conversation, as distinct as though it had been spoken into my ear:
“Can you see the school-house now, McKenzie?”
“I am groping for it, Rintoul. The mist seems to have made off with the path.”
“Where are you, McKenzie? I have lost sight of you.”
It was but a ribbon of mist, and as these words were spoken McKenzie broke through it. I saw him, though to him I was only a stone at my door.
“I have found the house, Rintoul,” he shouted, “and there is a light in it, so that the fellow has doubtless returned.”
“Then wait a moment for me.”
“Stay where you are, Rintoul, I entreat you, and leave him to me. He may recognize you.”
“No, no, McKenzie, I am sure he never saw me before. I insist on accompanying you.”
“Your excitement, Rintoul, will betray you. Let me go alone. I can question him without rousing his suspicions. Remember, she is only a gypsy to him.”
“He will learn nothing from me. I am quite calm now.”
“Rintoul, I warn you your manner will betray you, and to-morrow it will be roared through the countryside that your bride ran away from the Spittal in a gypsy dress, and had to be brought back by force.”
The altercation may have lasted another minute, but the suddenness with which I learned Babbie’s secret had left my ears incapable of learning more. I daresay the two men started when they found me at my door, but they did not remember, as few do remember who have the noisy day to forget it in, how far the voice carries in the night.
They came as suddenly on me as I on them, for though they had given unintentional notice of their approach, I had lost sight of the speakers in their amazing words. Only a moment did young McKenzie’s anxiety to be spokesman give me to regard Lord Rintoul. I saw that he was a thin man and tall, straight in the figure, but his head began to sink into his shoulders and not very steady on them. His teeth had grip of his under-lip, as if this was a method of controlling his agitation, and he was opening and shutting his 261 hands restlessly. He had a dog with him which I was to meet again.
“Well met, Mr. Ogilvy,” said McKenzie, who knew me slightly, having once acted as judge at a cock-fight in the school-house. “We were afraid we should have to rouse you.”
“You will step inside?” I asked awkwardly, and while I spoke I was wondering how long it would be before the earl’s excitement broke out.
“It is not necessary,” McKenzie answered hurriedly. “My friend and I (this is Mr. McClure) have been caught in the mist without a lamp, and we thought you could perhaps favor us with one.”
“Unfortunately I have nothing of the kind,” I said, and the state of mind I was in is shown by my answering seriously.
“Then we must wish you a good-night and manage as best we can,” he said; and then before he could touch, with affected indifference, on the real object of their visit, the alarmed earl said angrily, “McKenzie, no more of this.”
“No more of this delay, do you mean, McClure?” asked McKenzie, and then, turning to me said, “By the way, Mr. Ogilvy, I think this is our second meeting to-night. I met you on the road a few hours ago with your wife. Or was it your daughter?”
“It was neither, Mr. McKenzie,” I answered, with the calmness of one not yet recovered from a shock. “It was a gypsy girl.”
“Where is she now?” cried Rintoul feverishly; but McKenzie, speaking loudly at the same time, tried to drown his interference as one obliterates writing by writing over it.
“A strange companion for a schoolmaster,” he said. “What became of her?”
“I left her near Caddam Wood,” I replied, “but she is probably not there now.”
“Ah, they are strange creatures, these gypsies!” he said, casting a warning look at the earl. “Now I wonder where she had been bound for.”
“There is a gypsy encampment on the hill,” I answered, though I cannot say why.
“She is there!” exclaimed Rintoul, and was done with me.
“I daresay,” McKenzie said indifferently. “However, it is nothing to us. Good-night, sir.”
The earl had started for the trap, but McKenzie’s salute reminded him of a forgotten courtesy, and, despite his agitation, he came back to apologize. I admired him for this. Then my thoughtlessness must needs mar all.
“Good-night, Mr. McKenzie,” I said. “Good-night, Lord Rintoul.”
I had addressed him by his real name. Never a turnip fell from a bumping, laden cart, and the driver more unconscious of it, than I that I had dropped that word. I re-entered the house, but had not reached my chair when McKenzie’s hand fell roughly on me, and I was swung round.
“Mr. Ogilvy,” he said, the more savagely I doubt not because his passions had been chained so long, “you know more than you would have us think. Beware, sir, of recognising that gypsy should you ever see her again in different attire. I advise you to have forgotten this night when you waken to-morrow morning.”
With a menacing gesture he left me, and I sank into a chair, glad to lose sight of the glowering eyes with which he had pinned me to the wall. I did not hear the trap cross the ford and renew its journey. When I looked out next, the night had fallen very dark, and the glen was so deathly in its drowsiness that I thought not even the cry of murder could tear its eyes open.
The earl and McKenzie would be some distance still 263 from the hill when the office-bearers had scoured it in vain for their minister. The gypsies, now dancing round their fires to music that, on ordinary occasions, Lang Tammas would have stopped by using his fists to the glory of God, had seen no minister, they said, and disbelieved in the existence of the mysterious Egyptian.
“Liars they are to trade,” Spens declared to his companions, “but now and again they speak truth, like a standing clock, and I’m beginning to think the minister’s lassie was invented in the square.”
“Not so,” said the precentor, “for we saw her oursel’s a short year syne, and Hendry Munn there allows there’s townsfolk that hae passed her in the glen mair recently.”
“I only allowed,” Hendry said cautiously, “that some sic talk had shot up sudden-like in the town. Them that pretends they saw her says that she joukit quick out o’ sicht.”
“Ay, and there’s another quirk in that,” responded the suspicious precentor.
“I’se uphaud the minister’s sitting in the manse in his slippers by this time,” Hendry said.
“I’m willing,” replied Whamond, “to gang back and speir, or to search Caddam next; but let the matter drop I winna, though I ken you’re a’ awid to be hame now.”
“And naturally,” retorted Tosh, “for the nicht’s coming on as black as pick, and by the time we’re at Caddam we’ll no even see the trees.”
Toward Caddam, nevertheless, they advanced, hearing nothing but a distant wind and the whish of their legs in the broom.
“Whaur’s John Spens?” Hendry said suddenly.
They turned back and found Spens rooted to the ground, as a boy becomes motionless when he thinks he is within arm’s reach of a nest and the bird sitting on the eggs.
“What do you see, man?” Hendry whispered.
“As sure as death,” answered Spens, awe-struck, “I felt a drap o’ rain.”
“It’s no rain we’re here to look for,” said the precentor.
“Peter Tosh,” cried Spens, “it was a drap! Oh, Peter! how are you looking at me so queer, Peter, when you should be thanking the Lord for the promise that’s in that drap?”
“Come away,” Whamond said, impatiently; but Spens answered, “No till I’ve offered up a prayer for the promise that’s in that drap. Peter Tosh, you’ve forgotten to take off your bonnet.”
“Think twice, John Spens,” gasped Tosh, “afore you pray for rain this nicht.”
The others thought him crazy, but he went on, with a catch in his voice:
“I felt a drap o’ rain mysel’, just afore it came on dark so hurried, and my first impulse was to wish that I could carry that drap about wi’ me and look at it. But, John Spens, when I looked up I saw sic a change running ower the sky that I thocht hell had taen the place o’ heaven, and that there was waterspouts gathering therein for the drowning o’ the world.”
“There’s no water in hell,” the precentor said grimly.
“Genesis ix.,” said Spens, “verses 8 to 17. Ay, but, Peter, you’ve startled me, and I’m thinking we should be stepping hame. Is that a licht?”
“It’ll be in Nanny Webster’s,” Hendry said, after they had all regarded the light.
“I never heard that Nanny needed a candle to licht her to her bed,” the precentor muttered.
“She was awa to meet Sanders the day as he came out o’ the Tilliedrum gaol,” Spens remembered, “and I daresay the licht means they’re hame again.”
“It’s well kent – ” began Hendry, and would have recalled his words.
“Hendry Munn,” cried the precentor, “if you hae minded onything that may help us, out wi’t.”
“I was just minding,” the kirk officer answered reluctantly, “that Nanny allows it’s Mr. Dishart that has been keeping her frae the poorhouse. You canna censure him for that, Tammas.”
“Can I no?” retorted Whamond. “What business has he to befriend a woman that belongs to another denomination? I’ll see to the bottom o’ that this nicht. Lads, follow me to Nanny’s, and dinna be surprised if we find baith the minister and the Egyptian there.”
They had not advanced many yards when Spens jumped to the side, crying, “Be wary, that’s no the wind; it’s a machine!”
Immediately the doctor’s dogcart was close to them, with Rob Dow for its only occupant. He was driving slowly, or Whamond could not have escaped the horse’s hoofs.
“Is that you, Rob Dow?” said the precentor sourly. “I tell you, you’ll be gaoled for stealing the doctor’s machine.”
“The Hielandman wasna muckle hurt, Rob,” Hendry said, more good-naturedly.
“I ken that,” replied Rob, scowling at the four of them. “What are you doing here on sic a nicht?”
“Do you see anything strange in the nicht, Rob?” Tosh asked apprehensively.
“It’s setting to rain,” Dow replied. “I dinna see it, but I feel it.”
“Ay,” said Tosh, eagerly, “but will it be a saft, cowdie sweet ding-on?”
“Let the heavens open if they will,” interposed Spens recklessly. “I would swap the drought for rain, though it comes down in a sheet as in the year twelve.”
“And like a sheet it’ll come,” replied Dow, “and the deil’ll blaw it about wi’ his biggest bellowses.”
Tosh shivered, but Whamond shook him roughly, saying —
“Keep your oaths to yoursel’, Rob Dow, and tell me, hae you seen Mr. Dishart?”
“I hinna,” Rob answered curtly, preparing to drive on.
“Nor the lassie they call the Egyptian?”
Rob leaped from the dogcart, crying, “What does that mean?”
“Hands off,” said the precentor, retreating from him. “It means that Mr. Dishart neglected the prayer-meeting this nicht to philander after that heathen woman.”
“We’re no sure o’t, Tammas,” remonstrated the kirk officer. Dow stood quite still. “I believe Rob kens it’s true,” Hendry added sadly, “or he would hae flown at your throat, Tammas Whamond, for saying these words.”
Even this did not rouse Dow.
“Rob doesna worship the minister as he used to do,” said Spens.
“And what for no?” cried the precentor. “Rob Dow, is it because you’ve found out about this woman?”
“You’re a pack o’ liars,” roared Rob, desperately, “and if you say again that ony wandering hussy has haud o’ the minister, I’ll let you see whether I can loup at throats.”
“You’ll swear by the Book,” asked Whamond, relentlessly, “that you’ve seen neither o’ them this nicht, nor them thegither at any time?”
“I so swear by the Book,” answered poor loyal Rob. “But what makes you look for Mr. Dishart here?” he demanded, with an uneasy look at the light in the mudhouse.
“Go hame,” replied the precentor, “and deliver up the machine you stole, and leave this Session to do its duty. John, we maun fathom the meaning o’ that licht.”
Dow started, and was probably at that moment within an ace of felling Whamond.
“I’ll come wi’ you,” he said, hunting in his mind for a better way of helping Gavin.
They were at Nanny’s garden, but in the darkness Whamond could not find the gate. Rob climbed the paling, and was at once lost sight of. Then they saw his head obscure the window. They did not, however, hear the groan that startled Babbie.
“There’s nobody there,” he said, coming back, “but Nanny and Sanders. You’ll mind Sanders was to be freed the day.”
“I’ll go in and see Sanders,” said Hendry, but the precentor pulled him back, saying, “You’ll do nothing o’ the kind, Hendry Munn; you’ll come awa wi’ me now to the manse.”
“It’s mair than me and Peter’ll do, then,” said Spens, who had been consulting with the other farmer. “We’re gaun as straucht hame as the darkness’ll let us.”
With few more words the Session parted, Spens and Tosh setting off for their farms, and Hendry accompanying the precentor. No one will ever know where Dow went. I can fancy him, however, returning to the wood, and there drawing rein. I can fancy his mind made up to watch the mudhouse until Gavin and the gypsy separated, and then pounce upon her. I daresay his whole plot could be condensed into a sentence, “If she’s got rid o’ this nicht, we may cheat the Session yet.” But this is mere surmise. All I know is that he waited near Nanny’s house, and by and by heard another trap coming up Windyghoul. That was just before the ten o’clock bell began to ring.