The dogcart bumped between the trees of Caddam, flinging Gavin and the doctor at each other as a wheel rose on some beech-root or sank for a moment in a pool. I suppose the wood was a pretty sight that day, the pines only white where they had met the snow, as if the numbed painter had left his work unfinished, the brittle twigs snapping overhead, the water as black as tar. But it matters little what the wood was like. Within a squirrel’s leap of it an old woman was standing at the door of a mud house listening for the approach of the trap that was to take her to the poorhouse. Can you think of the beauty of the day now?
Nanny was not crying. She had redd up her house for the last time and put on her black merino. Her mouth was wide open while she listened. If you had addressed her you would have thought her polite and stupid. Look at her. A flabby-faced woman she is now, with a swollen body, and no one has heeded her much these thirty years. I can tell you something; it is almost droll. Nanny Webster was once a gay flirt, and in Airlie Square there is a weaver with an unsteady head who thought all the earth of her. His loom has taken a foot from his stature, and gone are Nanny’s raven locks on which he used to place his adoring hand. Down in Airlie Square he is weaving for his life, and here is Nanny, ripe for the poorhouse, and between them is the hill where they were lovers. That is all the story save that when Nanny heard the dogcart she screamed.
No neighbour was with her. If you think this hard, it is because you do not understand. Perhaps Nanny had never been very lovable except to one man, and him, it is said, she lost through her own vanity; but there was much in her to like. The neighbours, of whom there were two not a hundred yards away, would have been with her now but they feared to hurt her feelings. No heart opens to sympathy without letting in delicacy, and these poor people knew that Nanny would not like them to see her being taken away. For a week they had been aware of what was coming, and they had been most kind to her, but that hideous word, the poorhouse, they had not uttered. Poorhouse is not to be spoken in Thrums, though it is nothing to tell a man that you see death in his face. Did Nanny think they knew where she was going? was a question they whispered to each other, and her suffering eyes cut scars on their hearts. So now that the hour had come they called their children into their houses and pulled down their blinds.
“If you would like to see her by yourself,” the doctor said eagerly to Gavin, as the horse drew up at Nanny’s gate, “I’ll wait with the horse. Not,” he added, hastily, “that I feel sorry for her. We are doing her a kindness.”
They dismounted together, however, and Nanny, who had run from the trap into the house, watched them from her window.
McQueen saw her and said glumly, “I should have come alone, for if you pray she is sure to break down. Mr. Dishart, could you not pray cheerfully?”
“You don’t look very cheerful yourself,” Gavin said sadly.
“Nonsense,” answered the doctor. “I have no patience with this false sentiment. Stand still, Lightning, and be thankful you are not your master to-day.”
The door stood open, and Nanny was crouching against the opposite wall of the room, such a poor, dull kitchen, that you would have thought the furniture had still to be brought into it. The blanket and the piece of old carpet that was Nanny’s coverlet were already packed in her box. The plate rack was empty. Only the round table and the two chairs, and the stools and some pans were being left behind.
“Well, Nanny,” the doctor said, trying to bluster, “I have come, and you see Mr. Dishart is with me.”
Nanny rose bravely. She knew the doctor was good to her, and she wanted to thank him. I have not seen a great deal of the world myself, but often the sweet politeness of the aged poor has struck me as beautiful. Nanny dropped a curtesy, an ungainly one maybe, but it was an old woman giving the best she had.
“Thank you kindly, sirs,” she said; and then two pairs of eyes dropped before hers.
“Please to take a chair,” she added timidly. It is strange to know that at that awful moment, for let none tell me it was less than awful, the old woman was the one who could speak.
Both men sat down, for they would have hurt Nanny by remaining standing. Some ministers would have known the right thing to say to her, but Gavin dared not let himself speak. I have again to remind you that he was only one-and-twenty.
“I’m drouthy, Nanny,” the doctor said, to give her something to do, “and I would be obliged for a drink of water.”
Nanny hastened to the pan that stood behind her door, but stopped before she reached it.
“It’s toom,” she said. “I – I didna think I needed to fill it this morning.” She caught the doctor’s eye, and could only half restrain a sob. “I couldna help that,” she said, apologetically. “I’m richt angry at myself for being so ungrateful like.”
The doctor thought it best that they should depart at once. He rose.
“Oh, no, doctor,” cried Nanny in alarm.
“But you are ready?”
“Ay,” she said, “I have been ready this twa hours, but you micht wait a minute. Hendry Munn and Andrew Allardyce is coming yont the road, and they would see me.”
“Wait, doctor,” Gavin said.
“Thank you kindly, sir,” answered Nanny.
“But Nanny,” the doctor said, “you must remember what I told you about the poo – , about the place you are going to. It is a fine house, and you will be very happy in it.”
“Ay, I’ll be happy in’t,” Nanny faltered, “but, doctor, if I could just hae bidden on here though I wasna happy!”
“Think of the food you will get; broth nearly every day.”
“It – it’ll be terrible enjoyable,” Nanny said.
“And there will be pleasant company for you always,” continued the doctor, “and a nice room to sit in. Why, after you have been there a week, you won’t be the same woman.”
“That’s it!” cried Nanny with sudden passion. “Na, na; I’ll be a woman on the poor’s rates. Oh, mither, mither, you little thocht when you bore me that I would come to this!”
“Nanny,” the doctor said, rising again, “I am ashamed of you.”
“I humbly speir your forgiveness, sir,” she said, “and you micht bide just a wee yet. I’ve been ready to gang these twa hours, but now that the machine is at the gate, I dinna ken how it is, but I’m terrible sweer to come awa’. Oh, Mr. Dishart, it’s richt true what the doctor says about the – the place, but I canna just take it in. I’m – I’m gey auld.”
“You will often get out to see your friends,” was all Gavin could say.
“Na, na, na,” she cried, “dinna say that; I’ll gang, but you mauna bid me ever come out, except in a hearse. Dinna let onybody in Thrums look on my face again.”
“We must go,” said the doctor firmly. “Put on your mutch, Nanny.”
“I dinna need to put on a mutch,” she answered, with a faint flush of pride. “I have a bonnet.”
She took the bonnet from her bed, and put it on slowly.
“Are you sure there’s naebody looking?” she asked.
The doctor glanced at the minister, and Gavin rose.
“Let us pray,” he said, and the three went down on their knees.
It was not the custom of Auld Licht ministers to leave any house without offering up a prayer in it, and to us it always seemed that when Gavin prayed, he was at the knees of God. The little minister pouring himself out in prayer in a humble room, with awed people around him who knew much more of the world than he, his voice at times thick and again a squeal, and his hands clasped not gracefully, may have been only a comic figure, but we were old-fashioned, and he seemed to make us better men. If I only knew the way, I would draw him as he was, and not fear to make him too mean a man for you to read about. He had not been long in Thrums before he knew that we talked much of his prayers, and that doubtless puffed him up a little. Sometimes, I daresay, he rose from his knees feeling that he had prayed well to-day, which is a dreadful charge to bring against any one. But it was not always so, nor was it so now.
I am not speaking harshly of this man, whom I have loved beyond all others, when I say that Nanny came 115 between him and his prayer. Had he been of God’s own image, unstained, he would have forgotten all else in his Maker’s presence, but Nanny was speaking too, and her words choked his. At first she only whispered, but soon what was eating her heart burst out painfully, and she did not know that the minister had stopped.
They were such moans as these that brought him back to earth: —
“I’ll hae to gang… I’m a base woman no’ to be mair thankfu’ to them that is so good to me… I dinna like to prig wi’ them to take a roundabout road, and I’m sair fleid a’ the Roods will see me… If it could just be said to poor Sanders when he comes back that I died hurriedly, syne he would be able to haud up his head… Oh, mither!.. I wish terrible they had come and ta’en me at nicht… It’s a dogcart, and I was praying it micht be a cart, so that they could cover me wi’ straw.”
“This is more than I can stand,” the doctor cried.
Nanny rose frightened.
“I’ve tried you, sair,” she said, “but, oh, I’m grateful, and I’m ready now.”
They all advanced toward the door without another word, and Nanny even tried to smile. But in the middle of the floor something came over her, and she stood there. Gavin took her hand, and it was cold. She looked from one to the other, her mouth opening and shutting.
“I canna help it,” she said.
“It’s cruel hard,” muttered the doctor. “I knew this woman when she was a lassie.”
The little minister stretched out his hands.
“Have pity on her, O God!” he prayed, with the presumptuousness of youth.
Nanny heard the words.
“Oh, God,” she cried, “you micht!”
God needs no minister to tell Him what to do, but it was His will that the poorhouse should not have this woman. He made use of a strange instrument, no other than the Egyptian, who now opened the mudhouse door.
The gypsy had been passing the house, perhaps on her way to Thrums for gossip, and it was only curiosity, born suddenly of Gavin’s cry, that made her enter. On finding herself in unexpected company she retained hold of the door, and to the amazed minister she seemed for a moment to have stepped into the mud house from his garden. Her eyes danced, however, as they recognised him, and then he hardened. “This is no place for you,” he was saying fiercely, when Nanny, too distraught to think, fell crying at the Egyptian’s feet.
“They are taking me to the poorhouse,” she sobbed; “dinna let them, dinna let them.”
The Egyptian’s arms clasped her, and the Egyptian kissed a sallow cheek that had once been as fair as yours, madam, who may read this story. No one had caressed Nanny for many years, but do you think she was too poor and old to care for these young arms around her neck? There are those who say that women cannot love each other, but it is not true. Woman is not undeveloped man, but something better, and Gavin and the doctor knew it as they saw Nanny clinging to her protector. When the gypsy turned with flashing eyes to the two men she might have been a mother guarding her child.
“How dare you!” she cried, stamping her foot; and they quaked like malefactors.
“You don’t see – ” Gavin began, but her indignation stopped him.
“You coward!” she said.
Even the doctor had been impressed, so that he now addressed the gypsy respectfully.
“This is all very well,” he said, “but a woman’s sympathy – ”
“A woman! – ah, if I could be a man for only five minutes!”
She clenched her little fists, and again turned to Nanny.
“You poor dear,” she said tenderly, “I won’t let them take you away.”
She looked triumphantly at both minister and doctor, as one who had foiled them in their cruel designs.
“Go!” she said, pointing grandly to the door.
“Is this the Egyptian of the riots,” the doctor said in a low voice to Gavin, “or is she a queen? Hoots, man, don’t look so shamefaced. We are not criminals. Say something.”
Then to the Egyptian Gavin said firmly —
“You mean well, but you are doing this poor woman a cruelty in holding out hopes to her that cannot be realised. Sympathy is not meal and bedclothes, and these are what she needs.”
“And you who live in luxury,” retorted the girl, “would send her to the poorhouse for them. I thought better of you!”
“Tuts!” said the doctor, losing patience, “Mr. Dishart gives more than any other man in Thrums to the poor, and he is not to be preached to by a gypsy. We are waiting for you, Nanny.”
“Ay, I’m coming,” said Nanny, leaving the Egyptian. “I’ll hae to gang, lassie. Dinna greet for me.”
But the Egyptian said, “No, you are not going. It is these men who are going. Go, sirs, and leave us.”
“And you will provide for Nanny?” asked the doctor contemptuously.
“And where is the siller to come from?”
“That is my affair, and Nanny’s. Begone, both of you. She shall never want again. See how the very mention of your going brings back life to her face.”
“I won’t begone,” the doctor said roughly, “till I see the colour of your siller.”
“Oh, the money,” said the Egyptian scornfully. She put her hand into her pocket confidently, as if used to well-filled purses, but could only draw out two silver pieces.
“I had forgotten,” she said aloud, though speaking to herself.
“I thought so,” said the cynical doctor. “Come, Nanny.”
“You presume to doubt me!” the Egyptian said, blocking his way to the door.
“How could I presume to believe you?” he answered. “You are a beggar by profession, and yet talk as if – pooh, nonsense.”
“I would live on terrible little,” Nanny whispered, “and Sanders will be out again in August month.”
“Seven shillings a week,” rapped out the doctor.
“Is that all?” the Egyptian asked. “She shall have it.”
“At once. No, it is not possible to-night, but to-morrow I will bring five pounds; no, I will send it; no, you must come for it.”
“And where, O daughter of Dives, do you reside?” the doctor asked.
No doubt the Egyptian could have found a ready answer had her pity for Nanny been less sincere; as it was, she hesitated, wanting to propitiate the doctor, while holding her secret fast.
“I only asked,” McQueen said, eyeing her curiously, “because when I make an appointment I like to know where it is to be held. But I suppose you are suddenly 120 to rise out of the ground as you have done to-day, and did six weeks ago.”
“Whether I rise out of the ground or not,” the gypsy said, keeping her temper with an effort, “there will be a five-pound note in my hand. You will meet me to-morrow about this hour at – say the Kaims of Cushie?”
“No,” said the doctor after a moment’s pause; “I won’t. Even if I went to the Kaims I should not find you there. Why can you not come to me?”
“Why do you carry a woman’s hair,” replied the Egyptian, “in that locket on your chain?”
Whether she was speaking of what she knew, or this was only a chance shot, I cannot tell, but the doctor stepped back from her hastily, and could not help looking down at the locket.
“Yes,” said the Egyptian calmly, “it is still shut; but why do you sometimes open it at nights?”
“Lassie,” the old doctor cried, “are you a witch?”
“Perhaps,” she said; “but I ask for no answer to my questions. If you have your secrets, why may I not have mine? Now will you meet me at the Kaims?”
“No; I distrust you more than ever. Even if you came, it would be to play with me as you have done already. How can a vagrant have five pounds in her pocket when she does not have five shillings on her back?”
“You are a cruel, hard man,” the Egyptian said, beginning to lose hope. “But, see,” she cried, brightening, “look at this ring. Do you know its value?”
She held up her finger, but the stone would not live in the dull light.
“I see it is gold,” the doctor said cautiously, and she smiled at the ignorance that made him look only at the frame.
“Certainly, it is gold,” said Gavin, equally stupid.
“Mercy on us!” Nanny cried; “I believe it’s what they call a diamond.”
“How did you come by it?” the doctor asked suspiciously.
“I thought we had agreed not to ask each other questions,” the Egyptian answered drily. “But, see, I will give it to you to hold in hostage. If I am not at the Kaims to get it back you can keep it.”
The doctor took the ring in his hand and examined it curiously.
“There is a quirk in this,” he said at last, “that I don’t like. Take back your ring, lassie. Mr. Dishart, give Nanny your arm, and I’ll carry her box to the machine.”
Now all this time Gavin had been in the dire distress of a man possessed of two minds, of which one said, “This is a true woman,” and the other, “Remember the seventeenth of October.” They were at war within him, and he knew that he must take a side, yet no sooner had he cast one out than he invited it back. He did not answer the doctor.
“Unless,” McQueen said, nettled by his hesitation, “you trust this woman’s word.”
Gavin tried honestly to weigh those two minds against each other, but could not prevent impulse jumping into one of the scales.
“You do trust me,” the Egyptian said, with wet eyes; and now that he looked on her again —
“Yes,” he said firmly, “I trust you,” and the words that had been so difficult to say were the right words. He had no more doubt of it.
“Just think a moment first,” the doctor warned him. “I decline to have anything to do with this matter. You will go to the Kaims for the siller?”
“If it is necessary,” said Gavin.
“It is necessary,” the Egyptian said.
“Then I will go.”
Nanny took his hand timidly, and would have kissed it had he been less than a minister.
“You dare not, man,” the doctor said gruffly, “make an appointment with this gypsy. Think of what will be said in Thrums.”
I honour Gavin for the way in which he took this warning. For him, who was watched from the rising of his congregation to their lying down, whose every movement was expected to be a text to Thrums, it was no small thing that he had promised. This he knew, but he only reddened because the doctor had implied an offensive thing in a woman’s presence.
“You forget yourself, doctor,” he said sharply.
“Send some one in your place,” advised the doctor, who liked the little minister.
“He must come himself and alone,” said the Egyptian. “You must both give me your promise not to mention who is Nanny’s friend, and she must promise too.”
“Well,” said the doctor, buttoning up his coat, “I cannot keep my horse freezing any longer. Remember, Mr. Dishart, you take the sole responsibility of this.”
“I do,” said Gavin, “and with the utmost confidence.”
“Give him the ring then, lassie,” said McQueen.
She handed the minister the ring, but he would not take it.
“I have your word,” he said; “that is sufficient.”
Then the Egyptian gave him the first look that he could think of afterwards without misgivings.
“So be it,” said the doctor. “Get the money, and I will say nothing about it, unless I have reason to think that it has been dishonestly come by. Don’t look so frightened at me, Nanny. I hope for your sake that her stocking-foot is full of gold.”
“Surely it’s worth risking,” Nanny said, not very brightly, “when the minister’s on her side.”
“Ay, but on whose side, Nanny?” asked the doctor. “Lassie, I bear you no grudge; will you not tell me who you are?”
“Only a puir gypsy, your honour,” said the girl, becoming mischievous now that she had gained her point; “only a wandering hallen-shaker, and will I tell you your fortune, my pretty gentleman?”
“No, you shan’t,” replied the doctor, plunging his hands so hastily into his pockets that Gavin laughed.
“I don’t need to look at your hand,” said the gypsy, “I can read your fortune in your face.”
She looked at him fixedly, so that he fidgeted.
“I see you,” said the Egyptian in a sepulchral voice, and speaking slowly, “become very frail. Your eyesight has almost gone. You are sitting alone in a cauld room, cooking your ain dinner ower a feeble fire. The soot is falling down the lum. Your bearish manners towards women have driven the servant lassie frae your house, and your wife beats you.”
“Ay, you spoil your prophecy there,” the doctor said, considerably relieved, “for I’m not married; my pipe’s the only wife I ever had.”
“You will be married by that time,” continued the Egyptian, frowning at this interruption, “for I see your wife. She is a shrew. She marries you in your dotage. She lauchs at you in company. She doesna allow you to smoke.”
“Away with you, you jade,” cried the doctor in a fury, and feeling nervously for his pipe. “Mr. Dishart, you had better stay and arrange this matter as you choose, but I want a word with you outside.”
“And you’re no angry wi’ me, doctor, are you?” asked Nanny wistfully. “You’ve been richt good to me, but I canna thole the thocht o’ that place. And, oh, doctor, you winna tell naebody that I was so near taen to it?”
In the garden McQueen said to Gavin: —
“You may be right, Mr. Dishart, in this matter, for there is this in our favour, that the woman can gain nothing by tricking us. She did seem to feel for 124 Nanny. But who can she be? You saw she could put on and off the Scotch tongue as easily as if it were a cap.”
“She is as much a mystery to me as to you,” Gavin answered, “but she will give me the money, and that is all I ask of her.”
“Ay, that remains to be seen. But take care of yourself; a man’s second childhood begins when a woman gets hold of him.”
“Don’t alarm yourself about me, doctor. I daresay she is only one of those gypsies from the South. They are said to be wealthy, many of them, and even, when they like, to have a grand manner. The Thrums people had no doubt but that she was what she seemed to be.”
“Ay, but what does she seem to be? Even that puzzles me. And then there is this mystery about her which she admits herself, though perhaps only to play with us.”
“Perhaps,” said Gavin, “she is only taking precautions against her discovery by the police. You must remember her part in the riots.”
“Yes, but we never learned how she was able to play that part. Besides, there is no fear in her, or she would not have ventured back to Thrums. However, good luck attend you. But be wary. You saw how she kept her feet among her shalls and wills? Never trust a Scotch man or woman who does not come to grief among them.”
The doctor took his seat in the dogcart.
“And, Mr. Dishart,” he called out, “that was all nonsense about the locket.”