"What wean is that?" he asked, standing in the lobby and casting a suspicious eye upon the boy, his voice as high as in a barrack yard. The General stood at his shoulder, saying nothing, but looking at Gilian from under his pent brows.
Into Miss Mary's demeanour there had came as great a change as that which came upon the Pay-master when she broke in upon his vaunting. The lines dashed to her brow; when she spoke it was in a cold constrained accent utterly different from that the boy had grown accustomed to.
"It is the oe from Ladyfield," she explained.
"He'll be making a noise in the house," said the Cornal with a touch of annoyance. "I cannot stand boys; he'll break things, I'm sure. When is he going away?"
"Are you one of the boys who cry after Major MacNicol, my old friend and comrade?" asked the General in a high squeaking voice. "If I had my stick at some of you, tormenting a gallant old soldier!" And as he spoke he lifted his cane by the middle and shook it at the limbs of the affrighted youth.
"O Dugald, Dugald, you know none of the children of this town ever annoyed the Major; it is only the keelies from the low-country who do so. And this is not the boy to make a mock of any old gentleman, I am sure."
"I know he'll make a noise and start me when I am thinking," said the Cornal, still troubled. "Is it not very strange, Dugald, that women must be aye bringing in useless weans off the street to make noise and annoyance for their brothers?" He poked as he spoke with his stick at Gilian's feet as he would at an animal crossing his path.
"It is a strange cantrip, Mary," said the General; "I suppose you'll be going to give him something. It is give, give all the day in this house like Sergeant Scott's cantiniers."
"Indeed and you need not complain of the giving," said Miss Mary: "there was nobody gave with a greater extravagance than yourself when you had it to give, and nobody sends more gangrels about the house than you."
"Give the boy his meat and let him go," said the Cornal roughly.
"He's not going," said Miss Mary, turning quite white and taking the pin carefully out of her shawl and as carefully putting it in again. And having done this quite unnecessary thing she slipped her hand down and warmly clasped unseen the fingers of the boy in the folds of her bombazine gown.
"Not going? I do not understand you, Mary; as you grow older you grow stupider. Does she not grow stupider, Dugald?" said the Cornal.
"She does," said the General. "I think she does it to torment us, just." He was tired by this discussion; he turned and walked to the parlour.
Miss Mary mustered all her courage, and speaking with great rapidity explained the situation. The boy was the Ladyfield boy; the Paymaster was going to keep him hereafter.
The Cornal stood listening to the story as one in a trance. There was a little silence when she had done, and he broke it with a harsh laugh.
"Ah! and what is he going to make of this one?" he asked.
"That's to be seen," said Miss Mary; "he spoke of the army."
"Fancy that now!" said the Cornal with contempt. "Let me see him," he added suddenly.
"Let me see the seeds of soldiery." He put out a hand and—not roughly but still with more force than Gilian relished—drew him from the protection of the gown and turned his face to the window. He put his hand under the boy's chin; Gilian in the touch felt an abhorrence of the hard, clammy fingers that had made dead men, but his eyes never quailed as he looked up in the scarred face. He saw a mask; there was no getting to the secrets behind that purple visage. Experience and trial, emotions and passions had set lines there wholly new to him, and his fancy refused to go further than just this one thought of the fingers that had made dead men.
The Cornal looked him deeply in the eyes, caught him by the ear, and with a twist made him wince, pushed him on the shoulders and made his knees bend. Then he released him with a flout of contempt.
"Man! Jock's the daft recruiter," he said coarsely with an oath. "What's this but a clerk? There's not the spirit in the boy to make a drummer of him. There's no stuff for sogering here."
Miss Mary drew Gilian to her again and stiffened her lips. "You have nothing to do with it, Colin; it's John's house and if he wants to keep the boy he'll do it. And I'm sure if you but took the trouble to think that he is a poor orphan with no kith nor kin in the world, you would be the first to take him in at the door."
The Cornal's face visibly relaxed its sternness. He looked again more closely at the boy.
"Come away into our parlour here, and the General and I will have a crack with you," said he, leading the way.
Miss Mary gave the boy's hand a gentle squeeze, and softly pushed him in after her brother, shut the door behind them, and turned and went down to the kitchen.
Gilian was in a great dread, but revealed none of it in the half dusk of the room where he faced the two brothers as they sat at either side of the table. The General took out a bottle of spirits and placed it with scrupulous care in the very centre of the table; his brother lifted two tumblers from the corner cupboard and put them on each side of the bottle, fastidious to a hair's breadth as if he had been laying out columns of troops. It was the formula of the afternoon; sometimes they never put a lip to the glass, but it was always necessary that the bottle should be in the party. For a space that seemed terribly long to the boy they said no word but looked at him. The eyes of the Cornal seemed to pierce him through; the General in a while seemed to forget his presence, turning upon him a flat, vacant eye. Gilian leaned upon his other foot and was on the verge of crying at his situation. The day had been far too crowded with strangers and new experience for his comfort; he felt himself cruelly plucked out of his own sufficient company and jarred by contact with a very complex world.
With a rude loud sound that shook the toddy ladles in the cupboard the Cornal cleared his throat.
"How old are you?" he asked, and this roused the General, who came back from his musings with a convulsive start, and repeated his brother's question.
"Twelve," said Gilian, first in Gaelic out of instinct, and hurriedly repeating it in English lest he should offend the gentlemen.
"Twelve," said the Cornal, thinking hard. "You are not very bulky for your age. Is he now, Dugald?"
"He is not very bulky for his age," said the General, after a moment's pause as if he were recalling all the boys he knew of that age, or remitting himself to the days before his teens.
"And now, between ourselves," said the Cornal, leaning over with a show of intimacy and even friendliness, "have you any notion yourself of being a soger?"
"I never thought anything about it," Gilian confessed in a low tone. "I can be anything the Captain would like me to be."
"Did you ever hear the like?" cried the Cornal, looking in amazement at his brother. "He never thought anything about it, but he can be anything he likes. Is not that a good one? Anything he likes!" And he laughed with a choked and heavy effort till the scar upon his face fired like blood, and Gilian seemed to see it gape and flow as it did when the sword-slash struck it open in Corunna.
"Anything he likes!" echoed the General, laughing huskily till he coughed and choked. They both sat smiling grimly with no more sound till it seemed to the boy he must be in a dream, looking at the creations of his brain. The step of a fly could have been heard in the room almost, so sunk was it in silence, but outside, as in another world, a band of children filled the street with the chant of "Pity be"—chant of the trumpeters of the Lords.
Gilian never before heard that song with which the children were used to accompany the fanfare of the scarlet-coated musicians who preceded the Lords Justiciary on their circuit twice a year; but the words came distinctly to him in by the open window where the wallflower nodded, and he joined silently in his mind the dolorous chorus and felt himself the prisoner, deserving of every pity.
"Sit ye down there," at last said the Cornal, "with my brother the General's leave." And he waved to the high-backed haffit chair Miss Mary had so sparely filled an hour ago. Then he withdrew the stopper of the bottle, poured a tiny drop of the spirits into both tumblers, and drank "The King and his Arms," a sentiment the General joined in with his hand tremulous around the glass.
"Listen to me," said the Cornal, "and here I speak, I think, for my brother the General, who has too much to be thinking about to be troubling with these little affairs. Listen to me. I fought in Corunna, in Salamanca, Vittoria and Waterloo, and at Waterloo I led the Royals up against the yetts of hell. Did I not, Dugald?"
"You did that," said Dugald, withdrawing himself again from a muse over the records of victory. And then he bent a lustreless eye upon his own portrait, so sombre and gallant upon the wall, with the gold of the lace and epaulettes a little tarnished.
"I make no brag of it, mind you," said the Cornal, waving his hand as if he would be excused for mentioning it. "I am but saying it to show that I ken a little of bloody wars, and the art and trade of sogering. There are gifts demanded for the same that seriatim I would enumerate. First there is natural strength and will. All other trades have their limits, when a man may tell himself, 'That's the best I can do,' and shut his book or set down the tool with no disgrace in the relinquishment. But a soger's is a different ploy; he must stand stark against all encountering, nor cry a parley even with the lance at his throat. Oh, man! man! I had a delight in it in my time for all its trials. I carried claymore (so to name it, ours was a less handsome weapon, you'll observe), in the ranting, roving humour of a boy; I sailed and marched; it was fine to touch at foreign ports; it was sweet to hear the drums beat revally under the vines; the camp-fire, the—"
"And it would be on the edge of a wood," broke in the boy in Gaelic; "the logs would roar and hiss. The fires would be in yellow dots along the countryside, and the heather would be like a pillow so soft and springy under the arm. Round about, the soldiers would be standing, looking at the glow, their faces red and flickering, and behind would be the black dark of the wood like the inside of a pot, a wood with ghosts and eerie sounds and——"
He stammered and broke down under the astounded gaze of the Cornal and the General, who stood to their feet facing his tense and thrilled small figure. A wave of shame-heat swept over him at his own boldness.
Outside, the children's voices were fading in the distance as they turned the corner of the church singing "Pity be."
"Pity be on poor prisoners, pity be on them: Pity be on poor prisoners, if they come back again,"
they sang; the air softened into a fairy lullaby heard by an ear at eve against the grassy hillock, full of charm, instinct with dream, and the sentiment of it was as much the boy's within as the performers' without.
"This is the kind of play-actor John would make a soldier of," said the Cornal, turning almost piteously to his brother. "It beats all! Where did you learn all that?" he demanded harshly, scowling at the youth and sitting down again.
"He has the picture of it very true, now, has he not?" said the General. "I mind of many camps just like that, with the cork-trees behind and old Sir George ramping and cursing in his tent because the pickets hailed, and the corncrake would be rasping, rasping, a cannon-carriage badly oiled, among the grass."
Gilian sank into the chair again, his face in shadow.
"Discipline and reverence for your elders and superiors are the first lesson you would need, my boy," said the Cornal, taking a tiny drop of the spirits again and touching the glass of his brother, who had done likewise. "Discipline and reverence; discipline and reverence. I was once cocky and putting in my tongue like you where something of sense would have made me keep it between my teeth. Once in Spain, an ensign, I found myself in a wine-shop or change-house, drinking as I should never have been doing if I had as muckle sense as a clabbie-doo, with a dragoon major old enough to be my father. He was a pock-pudding Englishman, a great hash of a man with the chest of him slipped down below his belt, and what was he but bragging about the rich people he came of, and the rich soil they flourished on, its apple-orchards and honey-flowers and its grass knee-deep in June. 'Do you know,' said I, 'I would not give a yard's breadth of the shire of Argyll anywhere north of Knapdale at its rockiest for all your lush straths, and if it comes to antique pedigrees here am I, Clan Diarmid, with my tree going down to Donacha Dhu of Lochow.' That was insolence, ill-considered, unnecessary, for this major of dragoons, as I tell you, might be my father and I was but a raw ensign."
"I'll warrant you were home-sick when you said it," said the General.
"Was I not?" cried the brother. "'Twas that urged me on. For one of my company, just a minute before, had been singing Donacha Ban's song of 'Ben Dorain,' and no prospect in the world seemed so alluring to me then as a swath of the land I came from."
"I know 'Ben Dorain,'" said Gilian timidly, "and I think I could tell just the way you felt when you heard the man singing it in a foreign place."
"Come away, then, my twelve-year-old warlock," said the Cornal, mockingly, yet wondering too.
"This is a real oddity," said the General, drawing his chair a little nearer the boy.
"I heard a forester sing 'Ben Dorain' last Hogmanay at home—I mean in Ladyfield; he was not a good singer, and he forgot bits of the words here and there, but when he was singing it I saw the sun rise on the hill, not a slow grey, but suddenly in a smother of gold, and the hillside moved with deer. Birds whirred from the heather and the cuckoo was in the wood."
"That was very unlucky about the cuckoo before breakfast," said the Cornal, and he quoted a Gaelic proverb.
"Oh! if I was in a foreign place and some one sang that song I would be very, very sick for home. I would be full of thoughts about the lochs and the hunting roads, the slope of the braes and stripes of black fir on them; the crying of cattle, the sound of burn and eas and the voices of people I knew would be dragging my heart home. I would be saying, 'Oh! you strangers, you do not understand. You have not the want at your hearts,' and there would be one little bit of the place at home as plain to my view as that picture."
As he spoke, Gilian pointed at "The Battle of Vittoria." The brothers turned and looked as if it was something quite new and strange to them. Up rose the Cornal and went closer to peer at it.
"Confound it!" said he. "You're there with your tale of a ballant, and you point at the one picture ever I saw that gave me the day-dreaming. I never see that smudgy old print but I'm crying on the cavalry that made the Frenchmen rout."
From where he sat the boy could make out the picture in every detail. It was a scene of flying and broken troops, of men on the wings of terror and dragoons riding them down. There was at the very front of the picture, in a corner, among the flying Frenchmen pursued by the horses, the presentment of a Scottish soldier, wounded, lying upon his back with his elbows propped beneath him so that he had his head up, looking at the action, a soldier of a thin long habit of body, a hollow face and high cheekbones.
Gilian forgot the two old men in the room with him when he looked intently on this soldier in the throes; he stood up from the chair, went forward and put a finger as high as he could to point out the particular thing he referred to. "That's a man," said he, "and he's afraid. He does not hear the guns, nor the people crying, but he hears the horses' feet thudding on the grass, and he thinks they will go over him and crush his bones."
"Curse me," cried the Cornal, "but you have the thing to a nicety. That's the man's notion, for a guinea, for I have been in his case myself, and the thud of horses was a sound that filled the world. Sit down, sit down!" he went on sharply, as if he had of a sudden found something to reproach himself with in any complacent recognition of this child's images. "You are not canny; how old are you?"
Gilian was trembling and parched at the lips now, awake to the enormity of his forwardness. "I am twelve," he repeated.
"It is a cursed lie," said the Cornal hotly; "you're a hundred; don't tell me!"
He was actually a little afraid of those manifestations, so unusual and so remarkable. His excitement could with difficulty be concealed. Very restlessly he moved about in his chair, and turned his look from the General to the boy and back again, but the General sat with his chin in his breast, his mind a vacancy.
"Look at the General there; you're fairly scunnering him with your notions," said the Cornal. "I must speak to John about this. A soldier indeed! You're not fit for it, lad; you have only the makings of a dominie. Sit you there, and we'll see what John has to say about this when he comes in: it is going on seven, and he'll be back from the dregy in time for his supper."
Gilian sat trembling in his chair; the brothers leaned back in theirs and breathed heavily and said no word, and never even stretched a hand to the bottle of spirits. A solemn quiet again took possession of the house, but for a door that slammed in the lower flat, shaking the dwelling; the lulled sound of women's conversation at the oven-grate was utterly stilled. The pigeons came to the sill a moment, mourned and flew away; the carts did not rumble any more in the street; the children's chorus was altogether lost. A feeling came over the boy that he had been here or somewhere like it before, and he was fascinated, wondering what next would happen. A tall old clock in the lobby, whose pendulum swung so slowly that at first he had never realised its presence, at last took advantage of the silence and swung itself into his notice with a tick-tack. The silence seemed to thicken and press upon his ears; no striving after fancy could bring the boy far enough off from that strange convention, and try as he might to realise himself back in his familiar places by the riverside at Ladyfield, the wings of his imagining failed in their flight and he tumbled again into that austere parlour sitting with two men utterly beyond his comprehension.
There was, at last, one sound that gave a little comfort, and checked the tears that had begun to gather on the edges of his eyes. It came from the direction of the kitchen; it was a creaking of the wooden stairs; it was a faint shuffle of slippers in the lobby; then there was a hush outside the door deeper even than the stillness within. Gilian knew, as if he could see through the brown panelling, that a woman was standing out there listening with her breath caught up and wondering at the quiet within, yet afraid to open a door upon the mystery. The brothers did not observe it; all this was too faint for their old ears, though plainly heard by a child of the fields whose ear against the grass could detect the marching of insects and the tunnelling of worms. But for that he would have screamed—but for the magic air of friendship and sympathy that flowed to him through chink and keyhole from the good heart loud-beating outside; in that kind air of fond companionship (even with a door between) there was comfort. In a little the slippers sped back along the lobby, the stair creaked, in the lower flat a door slammed. Gilian felt himself more deserted and friendless than ever, and a few moments more would have found him break upon the appalling still with sobs of cowardly surrender, but the church bell rang. It was the first time he had heard its evening clamour, that, however far it might search up the glens, never reached Lady-field, so deep among the hills, and he had no more than recovered from the bewildering influence of its unexpected alarm when the foot of the Paymaster sounded heavily on the stair.
"You're here at last," said the Cornal, without looking at him.
"I was a thought later than I intended," said the Paymaster quickly, putting his cane softly into a corner. "I had a little encounter with that fellow Turner and it put by the time."
"Man! I wonder at you, John," said the Cornal with a contempt in his utterance and a tightening of the corner of his lips. "I wonder at you changing words with him. What was it you were on?"
The Paymaster explained shortly, guardedly, because of Gilian's presence, and as he spoke the purple of the Cornal's face turned to livid and the scar became a sickly yellow. He rose and thumped his fist upon the table.
"That was his defiance, was it?" he cried. "We are the old sonless bachelors, are we, and the name's dead with the last of us? And you argued with him about that! I would have put a hand on his cravat and throttled him."
The Paymaster was abashed, but "Just consider, Colin," he pleaded. "I am not so young as I was, and a bonny-like thing it would be to throttle him on the ground he gave."
"Old Mars!" cried the Cornal, with a sneer. "Man! but MacColl hit your character when he made his song; you were always well supplied by luck with excuses for not fighting."
To the General the Paymaster turned with piteous appeal. "Dugald," said he, "I'll leave it to you if Colin's acting fairly. Did ever I disgrace the name of Campbell, or Gael, or soger?"
"I never said you did," cried the Cornal. "All I said was that fate was a scurvy friend to you and seldom put you face to face with your foe on any clear issue. Perhaps I said too much; I'm hot-tempered, I know; never mind my taunt, John. But you'll allow it's galling to have a beggarly upstart like Turner throwing our bachelorhood in our teeth. Now if we had sons, or a son, one of us, I'll warrant we could bring him up with more credit than Turner brings up his long-lugged Sandy, or that randy lass of his."
"Isn't that what I told him?" said the Paymaster, scooping a great heap of dust into his nostrils, and feverishly rubbing down the front of his vest with a large handkerchief. "I wish——"
He stopped suddenly; he looked hard at Gilian, whose presence in the shadow of the big chair he had seemingly forgotten; seeing him gaze thus and pause, the Cornal turned too and looked at the youth, and the General shrugged himself into some interest in the same object. Before the gaze of the three brothers, the boy's skin burned; his eyes dropped.
"This is a queer callant you've brought us here," said the Cornal, nudging his brother and nodding in Gilian's direction. "I've seen some real diverts in my time, but he beats all. And you have a notion to make a soger of him, they tell me. You heard that yourself, didn't you, General?"
The General made no reply, for he was looking at the portrait of himself when he was thirty-five, and to sit doing nothing in a house would have been torture.
"I only said it in the by-going to Mary," explained the Paymaster humbly. "The nature for sogering is the gift of God, and the boy may have it or he may not; it is too soon to say."
"There's no more of the soger in him than there is of the writer in me!" cried the Cornal; "but there's something by-ordinar in him all the same. It's your affair, John, but—" He stopped short and looked again at Gilian and hummed and ha'd a little and fingered his stock. "Man, do you know I would not say but here's your son for you."
"That's what I thought myself," said the Paymaster, "and that's what I said. I'll make him a soger if I can, and I'll make him hate the name of Turner whether or not."
And all this time Gilian sat silently by, piecing out those scraps of old men's passion with his child's fancy. He found this new world into which he had been dragged, noisy, perplexing, interested apparently in the most vague trifles. That they should lay out his future for warfare and for hate, without any regard for his own wishes, was a little alarming. Soldiering—with the man before him in the picture, sitting propped up on his arms, frantic lest the horses should trample on him—seemed the last trade on earth; as for hate, that might be easier and due to his benefactor, but it would depend very much on the Turners.
When the brothers released him from their den, and he went to Miss Mary, standing at the kitchen door, eager for his company, with a flush on her cheek and a bright new ribbon at her neck, he laid those points before her.
"Tuts!" said she, pressing food on him—her motherhood's only cure for all a child's complaints—"they're only haverils. They cannot make a soger of you against your will. As for the Turners—well, they're no very likeable race, most of them in my mind. A dour, sour, up-setting clan of no parentage. Perhaps that does not much matter, so long as people are honest and well-doing; we are all equals before God except in head and heart, but there's something too in our old Hielan' notion that the closest kith of the King are aye most kindly, because the habit is born in them to be freehanded and unafraid. Am not I the oinseach to be sticking up for pedigrees? Perhaps it is because our own is so good. Kiels was ours three hundred years, and my grandfather was good-brother to an earl—a not very good nor honest lord they say—and the Turners were only portioners and tenants as far back as we ken."
"I liked the look of the one with his hair in a tail," said Gilian, and he wondered if she was angry at his admiration of the enemy, when he saw her face grow red.
—"Oh! the General!" she exclaimed, but never a word more, good or ill.
CHAPTER VII—THE MAN ON THE QUAY
It has always happened that the first steps of a boy from the glen have been to the quay. There the ships lie clumsily on their bulging sides in the ebb till the tar steams and blisters in the sun, or at the full they lift and fall heavily like a sigh for the ocean's expanse as they feel themselves prisoners to the rings and pawls. Their chains jerk and ease upon the granite edges of the wall or twang tight across the quay so that the mariners and fishermen moving about their business on this stone-thrust to the sea must lift their clumping boots high to step across those tethers of romance. At a full tide one walking down the quay has beside him the dark aspiring bulwarks of the little but brave adventurers, their seams gazing to the heat, their carvel timbers striped by the ooze and brine of many oceans and the scum of ports. Upon their poops their den-fire chimneys breathe a faint blue reek; the iron of bilge-pump and pin is rust red; the companions are portals to smelling depths where the bunks are in a perpetual gloom and the seamen lie at night or in the heat of the day discontent with this period of no roaming and remembering the tumbling waters and the far-off harbours that must ever be more alluring than the harbours where we be. From the ivy of the church the little birds come chaffering and twittering among the shrouds, and the pigeon will perch upon a spar, so that the sea-gull, the far-searcher, must wonder as he passes on a slant of silent leathers at its daring thus to utilise the device of the outermost seas and the most vehement storms. And side by side with these, the adventurers, are the skiffs and smacks of the fishermen, drilled in rows, brought bow up, taut on their anchors with their lug-sails down on their masts to make deck tents for shelter from sun or rain. With those sturdy black gabbarls and barques and those bronze fishers, the bay from the quay to the walls of the Duke's garden, in its season, stirs with life.
More than once when he had come to the town Gilian looked a little way off from the Cross upon this busy concourse in the bay and wished that he might venture on the quay, but the throng of tall, dark-shirted fishermen and seafarers frightened him so that he must stand aloof guessing at the nearer interest of the spectacle. Now that he was a town boy with whole days in which to muster courage, he spurred himself up to walk upon the quay at the first opportunity. It was the afternoon, the tide lapped high upon the slips and stairs, a heaving lazy roll of water so clear that the star-fish on the sandy bottom might plainly be seen through great depths. The gunnies of the ships o'ertopped by many feet the quay-wall and their chains rose slanting, tight from the rings. The fishermen and their boats were far down on Cowal after signs of herring; the bay was given up to barque and gabbart alone. For once a slumber seemed to lie upon the place for ordinary so throng and cheerful; the quay was Gilian's alone as he stepped wonderingly upon it and turned an eye to the square ports open for an airing to the dens. In all the company of the ships thus swaying at the quay-side there was no sign of life beyond the smoke that rose from the stunted funnels. The boy's fancy played among the masts like the birds from the ivy. These were the galleys of Inishtore, that rode upon the seven seas for a king's son with a hauberk of gold. The spicy isles, the silver sands, the songs the graugach sang below the prows when the sea dashed—they came all into his vision of those little tarred hulks of commerce. He thought how fine it would be to set foot upon those decks and loose the fastenings, and drop down the sea-slope of the shepherds' stories till he came upon Ibrisail, happy isle of play and laughter, where the sun never drops below the ocean's marge.
In one of the vessels behind him, as he mused, a seaman noiselessly thrust his head out at a companion to look the hour upon the town's clock, and the boy, pale, fair-haired, pondering, with eyes upon the shrouds of a gabbart, forced himself by his stillness and inaction upon the man's notice. He was a little, stout, well-built man, with a face tanned by sunshine and salt air to the semblance of Spanish mahogany, with wide and searching eyes and long curled hair of the deepest black. His dress was singularly perjink, cut trim and tight from a blue cloth, the collar of a red shirt rolled over on the bosom, a pair of simple gold rings pierced the ears. As he looked at the boy, he was humming very softly to himself a Skye song, and he stopped in the midst of it with "So 'iile, have you lost your ship?" A playful scamp was revealed in his smile.
Gilian turned round with a start of alarm, for he had been on some coracle of fancy, sailing upon magic seas, and thus to break upon his reverie with the high Gaelic of Skye was to plunge him in chilling waters.
"Thig an so—come here," said the seaman, beckoning, setting an easy foot upon the deck.
Gilian went slowly forward, he was amazed and fascinated by this wondrous seaman come upon the stillness of the harbour without warning, a traveller so important yet so affable in his invitation. Black Duncan that day was in a good humour, for his owners had released him at last from his weeks of tethering to the quay and this dull town and he was to depart to-morrow with his cargo of timber. In a little he had Gilian's history, and they were comrades. He took him round the deck and showed its simple furniture, then in the den he told him mariners' tales of the sea.
A Carron stove burned in the cabin, dimly, yet enough to throw at times a flicker of light upon the black beams overhead, the vessel's ribs, the bunks that hung upon them. Sitting on a sea-chest, Gilian felt the floor lift and fall below him, a steady motion wholly new, yet confirming every guess he had made in dreams of life upon the wave. A ceaseless sound of water came through the wood, of the tide glucking along the bows, surely to the mariner the sweetest of all sounds when he lies in benign weather moving home upon the sigh of God.
Black Duncan but wanted a good listener. He was not quite the world's traveller he would have Gilian believe; but he had voyaged in many outlandish parts and a Skyeman's memory is long and his is the isle where fancy riots. He made his simple ventures round the coast voyages terrible and unending. The bays, the water-mouths, the rocks, the bosky isles—he clothed them with delights, and made them float in the haze wherein a boy untravelled would envelop them.
"There's a story I know." said Gilian, "of a young son who went to a town where the king of Erin bides, and he found it full of music from end to end, every street humming with song."
"Oh, lad, I have been there," said the seaman, unabashed, his teeth very white in the brown of his smiling face. "You sail and sail in winds and drift in calms, and there is a place called Erin's Eye and a mountain rock behind it, and then you come upon the town of the king's daughter. It is a town reeling with music; some people without the ears would miss it, you and Black Duncan would be jigging to the sound of it. The world, 'ille (and here's the sailorman who has sailed the seven seas and knows its worst and best), is a very grand place to such as understand and allow. I was born with a caul as we say; I know that I'll never drown, so that when winds crack I feel safe in the most staggering ship. I have gone into foreign ports in the dead of night, our hail for light but answered by Sir Echo, and we would be waiting for light, with the smell of flowers and trees about us, and—"
"That would be worth sailing for," said Gilian, looking hard at the embers in the Carron stove.
"Or the beast of the wood might come roaring and bellowing to the shore."
"That would be very frightsome," said Gilian with a shiver. "I have made believe the hum of the bee in the heather at my ear as I lay on it in the summer was the roar of the wild beast a long way off; it was uncanny and I could make myself afraid of it, but when I liked it was the bee again and the heather was no higher than my knee."
The seaman laughed till the den rang. He poked the fire and the flame thrust out and made the boy and the man and the timbers and bunks dance and shake in the world between light and shadow. "You are the sharpest boy ever I conversed with," said he.
A run of the merriest, the sweetest, the most unconstrained laughter broke overhead like a bird's song. They looked up and found the square of blue sky broken at the hatch by a girl's head. A roguish face in a toss of brown hair, seen thus above them against the sky, seemed to Gilian the face of one of the fairies with which he had peopled the seaman's isle.
"There you go!" cried Black Duncan, noway astonished. "Did I not tell you never to come on board without halloo?"
"I cried," said the girl in a most pretty English that sounded all the sweeter beside the seaman's broken and harsh accent in a language foreign to him. "I cried 'O Duncan' twice and you never heard, so I knew you were asleep in your dingy old den." She swung herself down as she spoke and stood at the foot of the companion with the laugh renewed upon her lips, a gush of happy heart.
"Indeed, Miss Nan, and I was not sleeping at all," said Black Duncan, standing up and facing her; "if I was sleeping would there be a boy with me here listening to the stories of the times when I was scouring the oceans and not between here and the Clyde in your father's vessel?"
"Oh! a boy!" cried the girl, taken a little aback. "I did not know there was a boy."
"And a glen boy, too," said the seaman, speaking in a language wherein he knew himself more the equal of his master's daughter. "I told him of Erin O and the music in its streets, and he does not make fun of my telling like you, Miss Nan, because he understands."
The girl peered into the dark of the cabin at the face of Gilian that seemed unwontedly long and pallid in the half light, with eyes burning in sepulchral pits, repeating the flash of the embers. She was about his own age—at most no more than a month or two younger, but with a glance bold and assured that spoke of an early maturity.
"Oh! a Glen Aray boy," said she. "I never much care for them. You would be telling him some of the tales there is no word of truth in."
"The finest tales in the world are like that," said Black Duncan.
She sat on the edge of a bunk and swung a little drab jean shoe.
The glamour of Black Duncan's stories fled for Gilian before this presence like mist before a morning wind. So healthy, so ruddy, so abrupt, she was so much in the actual world that for him to be dreaming of others seemed a child's weakness.
"I was in the town with uncle," she said, "and I heard you were sailing away to-morrow, and I thought I would come and say good-bye."
She spoke as prettily in her Gaelic as in her English.
"Ah, mo run," said the seaman, putting out his arms as to embrace her, "am not I pleased that you should have Black Duncan in your mind so much as to come and say 'fair wind to your sail'?"
"And you'll bring me the beads next time?" she said hastily.
"That will I," said he, smiling; "but you must sing me a song now or I might forget them."
"Oh, I'll sing if——." She paused and looked doubtfully at Gilian, who was still open-mouthed at her breezy vehemence.
"Never mind the boy," said the seaman, stretching himself to enjoy the music at his ease; "if you make it 'The Rover' he will understand."
The afternoon was speeding. The sun had passed the trees that round the Tolbooth walls and a beam from his majesty came boldly into the den by the companion. It struck a slanting passage on the floor and revealed the figure of a girl at her ease dangling her feet upon a water anker with her hair a flood of spate-brown fallen back upon its fastening band. And the boy saw her again as it were quite differently from before, still the robust woman-child, but rich, ripe, blooded at the plump inviting lip, warm at the throbbing neck. About her hung a searching odour that overcame the common and vulgar odours of the ship, its bilge, its tar, its oak-bark tan, its herring scale, an odour he knew of woods in the wet spring weather. It made him think of short grasses and the dewdrop glittering in the wet leaf; then the sky shone blue against a tremble of airy leaf. The birch, the birch, he had it! And having it he knew the secret of the odour. She had already the woman's trick of washing her hair in the young birch brewings.
"I will sing 'The Rover' and I will sing 'The Man with the Coat of Green,'" said she, with the generosity of one with many gifts. And she started upon her ditty. She had a voice that as yet was only in its making; it was but a promise of the future splendour, yet to Gilian, the hearer, it brought a new and potent joy. With 'The Rover' he lived in the woods, and set foot upon foreign wharves; 'The Man with the Coat of Green' had his company upon the morning adventures in the islands of fairydom. It was then, as in after years she was the woman serious, when her own songs moved her, with her dalliance and indifference gone. A tear trembled at her eyes at the trials of the folk she sang.
"You sing—you sing—you sing like the wind in the trees," said the seaman, stirred to unaccustomed passion. The little cabin, when she was done, seemed to shrink from the limitless width of the world to the narrowness of a cell, and Gilian sat stunned. He had followed her song in a rapture she had seen and delighted in for all the apparent surrender of her emotion; she saw now the depth to which she had touched him, and was greatly pleased with this conquest of her art. Clearly he was no common Glen Aray boy, so she sang one or two more songs to show the variety of her budget, and the tears he could not restrain were her sweetest triumph. At last, "I must be going," said she. "Good-bye, Duncan, and do not be forgetting my beads." Then she dashed on deck, waiting no answer to that or to the friendly nod of parting to Gilian.
"Now isn't she a wonder?" asked the seaman, amused, astonished, proud. "Did you ever hear singing like it?"
"I never did," said Gilian.
"Ah, she is almost as fine as a piper!" said the seaman. "She comes down here every time I am at the quay and she will be singing here till the timbers strain themselves to listen."
"I like her very much," said Gilian.
"Of course you do," the seaman cried, with a thump of his hard hand on the edge of his bunk, "and would it not be very curious indeed if you did not like her? I have heard women sing in many places—bold ones in Amsterdam, and the shy dancers of Bermuda, but never her equal, and she only a child. How she does it is the beat of me."
"I know," said Gilian, reddening a little to say so much to the seaman, but emboldened by the shadows he sat among. "The birds sing that way and the winds and the tide, because they have the feeling of it and they must. And when she sings she is 'The Rover,' or she is 'The Man with the Green Coat.'"
"Indeed, and it is very easy too when you explain," said the seaman, whether in earnest or in fun the boy could not make out "She is the strange one anyway, and they say General Turner, who's her father and the man this ship belongs to, is not knowing very well what to make of her. What is the matter with you?" For the boy's face was crimson as he looked up the quay after the girl from the deck where now they stood.
"Oh," said Gilian, "I was just wondering if that would be the family the Paymaster is not friendly with."
The seaman laughed. "That same!" said he. "And are you in the family feud too? If that is so you'll hear little of Miss Nan's songs, I'm thinking, and that is the folly of feuds. If I was you I would say nothing about the Jean, and the lass who sang in her."
CHAPTER VIII—THE SHERIFF'S SUPPER PARTY
But Gilian was soon to hear the lass again.
It was a great town for supper parties. To make up, as it were, for the lost peat-side parliaments or supper nights that for their fore-folk made tolerable the quiet glens, the town people had many occasions of social intercourse in each other's homes, where the winter nights, that otherwise had been long and dreary, passed in harmless gaiety. The women would put on their green Josephs and gaudiest quilted petticoats or their tabinet gowns of Waterloo whose splendour kirk or market poorly revealed for the shawls that must cover them. The men donned their best figured waistcoats and their newest stocks, and cursed the fashions that took them from their pipes and cards, but solaced themselves mightily with the bottle in the host's bedroom. From those friendly convocations, jealousies innumerable bred. It was not only that each other's gowns raised unchristian thoughts in the bosoms of the women, but in a community where each knew her neighbour and many were on equality, there must be selections, and rancour rose. And it was the true Highland rancour, concealing itself under a front of indifference and even politeness, though the latter might be ice-cold in degree but burning fiercely at the core.
A few days after Gilian came to town Miss Mary and her brothers were submitted to a slight there could be no mistaking. It came from the wife of the Sheriff, who was a half-sister of the Turners. The Sheriff's servant had come up to the shop below the Paymaster's house early in the forenoon for candles, and Miss Mary chanced to be in the shop when this purchase was made. It could signify nothing but festivity, for even in the Sheriff's the home-made candle was good enough for all but festive nights.
Miss Mary went upstairs disturbed, curious, annoyed. She had got no invitation to the Sheriff's, and yet here was the hint of some convivial gathering such as she and her brothers had hitherto always been welcome to.
"What do you think it will be, John?" she asked the Paymaster, telling him what she had seen.
"Tuts," said he, "they'll just be out of dips. Or maybe the Sheriff has an extra hard case at avizandum, not to be seen clearly through with a common creesh flame."
"That's aye you," cried Miss Mary, indignant "People might slap you in the face and you would have no interest."
She hastened to Peggy in the kitchen and Peggy shared her wonder, though she was not permitted to see her annoyance. A plan was devised to find out what this extravagance of candle might portend.
The maid took her water-stoups and went up to the Cross Well, where women were busy at that hour of the day plying for the water of Bealloch-an-uarain, that bubbles up deep in the heart of the hills, and brings the coolness and refreshment of the shady wood into the burgh street in the most intense days of summer warmth. She filled her stoups composedly, set them down and gossiped, upset them as by accident, and waited patiently her turn to fill them anew. Thus by twenty minutes' skilful loitering she secured from the baxter's daughter the news that there was a supper at the Sheriff's that very night, and that very large tarts were at the firing in the baxter's oven.
"Oh, indeed!" cried Miss Mary, when her emissary brought to her those tidings. "Then it seems the Campbells of Keil are not good enough company for Sheriff Maclachlan's supper parties! My brother the Cornal, and my brother the Major-General, would have their own idea about that if so small a trifle as Madam's tart supper and green tea was worth their notice or annoyance."
She was visibly disturbed, yet put on a certain air of indifference that scarcely deceived even Peggy. The worst of it was there was no one with whom she could share her annoyance, for, if the Paymaster had no sympathy, the other two brothers were unapproachable. Gilian found her in a little rain of tears. She started with shame at his discovery, and set herself to a noisy handling of dinner dishes that by this time he knew well enough were not in her daily office of industry. And she said never a word—she that never heard his foot upon the stair without a smile of pleasure, or saw his face at the door without a mother's challenge to his appetite.
"What is wrong, aunty?" he said in the Gaelic, using the term it had been agreed would best suit the new relationship.
"Just nothing at all, my dear," she said without looking round. "What would be wrong?"
"But you are crying," protested Gilian, alarmed lest he in some way should have been the cause of her distress.
"Am I?" said Miss Mary. "And if I am, it is just for a silly thing only a woman would mind, a slight from people not worth heeding." And then she told, still shamefacedly, her story.
Gilian was amazed.
"I did not think you cared for suppers and teas," he said. "The last time you went to the Sheriffs you said you would far sooner be at home, and—"
"Did I?" said she. Then she smiled to find some one who knew it was not the outing she immediately prized. "Indeed, what you say is true, Gilian. I'm an old done dame, and it was wiser for the like of me to be sitting knitting at the fire than going on diverts to their bohea parties and clashing supper tables. But it's not myself I'm angry for. Oh, no! they might leave me alone for ever and a day and I would care not a pin-head, but it's Dugald I'm thinking of—a Major-General—one of the only three in the shire, and Colin—a Cornal—and both of Keils. The Sheriff's lady might leave me out of her routs if she pleasured it, but she has no cause to put my brothers to an insult like this." She said "my brothers" with a high hard sound of stern and proud possession that was very fine to hear. Even Gilian, as yet only beginning to know the love and pride of this little woman, had, at her accent, a sudden deep revealing of her devoted heart.
"It is the Turners' doing," she said, feverishly rubbing a warming pan whose carved lid from Zaandam blinked and gleamed like the shining face of a Dutch skipper over his dram. "I know them; because my brother must be quarrelling with them, their half-sister must be taking up the quarrel and shutting her door in our faces."
"The Turners! Then I hate them too," cried Gilian, won to the Paymaster's side by the sorrow of Miss Mary.
"Oh, you must not say that, my dear," she cried, appalled. "It is not your affair at all, and the Turners are not to blame because the Sheriff is under the thumb of his madam. The Turners have their good points as well as the rest of us, and—"
"They have a daughter," said Gilian, almost unconsciously, for there had come flooding into his mind a vision of the sombre vessel's cabin, shot over by a ray of sunshine, wherein a fairy sang of love and wandering. And then he regretted he had spoke of hate for any of her name, for surely (he thought) there should be no hate in the world for any that had her blood and shared her home.
Surely in her people, knowing her so warm, so lovely, so kind, so gifted, there could be no cruelty and wrong.
"I would not say I hated any one if I were you, my dear," said Miss Mary; "but I would keep a cool side to the Turners, father, or daughter, or son. Their daughter that you speak of was the cause of this new quarrel. The Captain miscalled her to her father, which was not right, for indeed she's a bonny lassie, and they tell me she sings—"
"Like the mavis,9' cried Gilian, still in his Gaelic and in a transport of recollection.
"Where did you hear her?" asked Miss Mary.
Gilian, flushed and uneasy, told her of the performance in the ship. Finding a listener neither inattentive nor without sympathy, he went further still and told of the song's effect upon him, and that the sweetness of it still abiding made his hatred of her people impossible.
"She'll do for looks too," said Miss Mary. "She takes them with her singing from her mother, who was my dear companion before this trouble rose."
"Oh! she looks like—like—like the gruagach girl in the story," said Gilian, remembering the tale of the sea-maiden who sat on the shore and dressed her hair with a comb of gold.
"I hope she's not so uncanny," said Miss Mary with a laugh, "for the gruagach combed till a sweetheart came (that I should be talking of such daft-like things!), and he was drowned and that was the end of him."
"Still—still," said Gilian, "the gruagach was worth the drowning for."
Miss Mary looked at him with a sigh for a spirit so much to be envied.
"This may be but a chapter in a very old tale," said she. "It was with a lass the feud came in." A saying full of mystery to the boy. Then she changed the conversation back to her own affairs. "We'll take a walk out in the gloaming and see all the Sheriff's friends," said she, "and all the Sheriff's friends in this supper are Turner's friends and the Paymaster's enemies."
The night of the Sheriff's supper party came with heavy showers and a sky swept by clouds that let through glimpse of moon nor star. The town lay in pitch darkness, all silent except for the plash of the sea upon the shore or its long roll on the Ramparts. A deserted and wind-swept street, its white walls streaming with waters, its outer shutters on the ground fiats barred to darkness, its gutters running over—it was the last night on which any one with finery and a notion for comfort would choose for going abroad to parties. Miss Mary, sitting high at her parlour window with Gilian, looked out through the blurred pane with satisfaction upon all this inclemency.
"Faith," said she, "I wish them joy of their party whoever they be that share it!" Then all at once her mood changed to one of pity as the solitary street showed a moving light upon its footway. "Oh!" she cried. "There's Donacha Breck's lantern and his wife will be with him. And to-day she was at me for my jelly for a cold! I wish—I wish she was not over the door this night; it will be the death of her. To-morrow I must send her over the last of my Ladyfield honey."
From the window and in the darkness of the night, it was impossible to tell who were for the Sheriffs party, so Miss Mary in the excess of her curiosity must be out after a time and into the dripping darkness, with Gilian by her side for companionship. It was an adventure altogether to his liking. As he walked up and down the street on its darker side he could think upon the things that were happening behind the drawn blinds and bolted shutters. It was as if he was the single tenant of a sleeping star and guessing at the mysteries of a universe. Stories were happening behind the walls, fires were glimmering, suppers were set, each family for the time being was in a world of its own, split off from its neighbours by the darkness.
A few shops lay open, throwing faint radiance on the footpath that swam in water.
Miss Mary went to the window of two sisters who made caps on the Lady Charlotte model and mantuas inspired by a visit to Edinburgh five years ago. She scanned the contents of the window carefully.
"It's gone; I knew it would be gone," she said in a whisper to Gilian, withdrawing hastily from the revelation of the window as a footstep sounded a little way down the street.
He awaited her explanation, not greatly interested, for the blank expanse of the moaning sea round the corner of a tall tenement filled him with new and moving emotions.
"There has been a cap there for a week with lilac trimmings for Rixa's sister, and now it has gone. It was there this morning, and I saw her lassie going by with a bandbox in the middle of the day. That's two pair at least for the Sheriff's party."
"Would it not be easier to-morrow to ask some one who were all there?" said Gilian.
She shook his arm with startled affright.
"Ask! ask!" she exclaimed. "If you dared let on to any one we even heard there was a party, I would—I would—be terribly vexed. No, Gilian, we must hold our heads a bit higher than that."
She passed with the boy from tenement to tenement.
"Major Hall and his sister are there," she said, showing darkened windows. "And the Camerons and the Frasers," she added later, informed by the same signs of absence.
Out came the late merchants and shuttered their little windows and bolted up their doors, then retreated to their homes behind. More dark than ever became the world, though the rain had ceased. Only a few windows shone wanly in the upper flats and garrets. The wind moaning in the through-going closes expressed a sense of desolation.
And yet the town was not all asleep but for the Sheriff's party and Miss Mary and the Paymaster's boy, for there came from the Abercrombie, though the door was shut discreetly, a muffled sound of carousal. It was not, this time, the old half-pay officers but a lower plane of the burgh's manhood, the salvage and the wreckage of the wars, privatemen and sergeants, by a period of strife and travel made in some degree unfit for the tame ways of peace in a stagnant burgh. They told the old tales of the bivouac; they sang its naughty or swaggering songs. By a plain deal door and some glasses of spirit they removed themselves from the dull town drowsing in the night, and in the light of the Sergeant More's cruisie moved again in the sacked towns of Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajos and San Sebastian, gorged anew, perhaps, with blood and lust.
Miss Mary and Gilian passed the door of the Sergeant More hurriedly, she deaf to its carousal, he remembering all at once and finding wake anew his first feelings when he stood in the same room before the half-pay officers at their midday drams. He had become a little tired of this quest all to gratify an old maid's curiosity, he wished he could be home again and in his attic room with his candle and his story book, or his abundant and lively thoughts. But there was one other task before Miss Mary. She could not forbear so little as a glance at the exterior of the Sheriff's dwelling where the enemies of her home (as so she now must fancy them) were trying to be happy without the company of the Campbells of Keils. When they were in front of it every window shone across the grass-plot, some of them open so that the sound of gaiety came clearly to the woman and the boy. Miss Mary stood woebegone, suffused in tears.
"And there are my dear brothers at home yonder, their lee-lone, silent, sitting in a parlour! Oh! it is shameful, it is shameful! And all for a hasty word about a lass!"
Gilian before this curious sorrow was dumb. Silently he tried to lead the little lady away from the place, but she would not go, and would not be comforted. Then there came from the open windows the beginning of a song. At the first note Gilian thrilled in every nerve.
"Fancy that now!" said Miss Mary, checking her tears. "No more than a wean and here she must be singing at supper parties as brave as the mother before her. It's a scandal! And it shows the bitterness of the quarrel to have her here, for she was never here at supper before."
"But is she not fine?" said Gilian, with a passion in his utterance.
Nan it was, singing a Scots song, a song of sad and familiar mood, a song of old loves, old summers, and into the darkness it came with a sweetness almost magic.
"Is she not fine?" he said again, clutching with eager hands at the rail and leaning over as far as he could to lose no single note of that alluring melody.
"Oh, the dear! the dear!" sobbed Miss Mary, moved to her inmost by the strain. "When I heard her first I thought it was her mother, and that too her favourite song! Oh, the dear! the dear! and I to be the sinful woman here on any quarrel for her!"
The song ceased, a window noisily closed, and Gilian fell back with a shock upon a wet world with roads full of mire and a salt wind from the sea moaning in the trees behind the town.
"What—what—what are we here for?" said he, beholding for the first time the impropriety of this eavesdropping on the part of so genteel and sensitive a dame.
She blushed in the dark with the shame the query roused. She had thought him too young to understand the outrage this must be on her every sense of Highland decency, and yet he could reprove her in a single sentence!
"You may well ask," she said, moving away from that alluring house-front with its inmates so indifferent to the passions in the dark without And her sobs were not yet finished. "Because I prize my brothers," said she, "and grieve at any slight upon them, must I be spy upon my dead companion's child?" She hurried her pace away from that house whose windows stared in a dumb censure upon her humiliation. Gilian trudged reluctantly at her side, confounded, but she seemed almost unconscious that he was there, till he tugged with a shy sympathy at her gown. Then she looked and beamed upon him with the mother-face.
"Do you like that girl?" said she.
"I like her—when she sings," said he.
"Oh! it was always that," she went on helplessly "My poor brothers! They were not to blame, and she was not to blame, at least, not very much perhaps; if blame there was, it lay with the providence that brought them together." Then she stopped a moment with a pitiful exclamation: "Oh! I was the instrument of providence in their case; but for me, that loved them all, it might never have been. What am I doing here with you? She may have her mother's nature as well as her mother's songs."
For once Gilian found himself with many pieces of a tale he could not put together, for all his ingenuity. He said nothing, but fumbled in many trials at the pieces as he and the little lady walked up the street, now deserted but for themselves and a man's footsteps sounding on the flags. The man was on them before Miss Mary realised his coming. It was Mr. Spencer of the New Inn. He stopped with a salutation, coming upon them, as it happened, in the light of the oil-lamp at the Cross Well, and a discreet surprise was in his visage.
"It is an inclement evening, Miss Campbell," he said, in a shrill high dainty accent that made him seem a foreigner when in converse among the guttural Highland burghers.
She answered in some confusion, and by this time he had found a reason for her late hour abroad in the wet deserted street.
"You have left the Sheriff's early to-night," said he. "I was asked, but I find myself something of the awkward stranger from the big world when I come into the kind and homely gatherings of the clans here."
"I think we are not altogether out of the big world you speak of," said Miss Mary, in a chilly tone. "The mantua-maker tells me the latest fashions are here from London sooner than they are in Edinburgh." She saw in his face the innkeeper's apology for his common sin against the Gaelic vanity. "We were just out for an airing," she added, taking Gilian's hand in hers and squeezing it with meaning.
"I thought, ma'am, you were at the Sheriffs," said Mr. Spencer.
"Oh! there is a party in the Sheriff's, is there?" she said. "That is very nice; they have a hospitable house and many friends. I must hurry home to my brothers, who, like all old gentlemen, are a little troublesome and care neither to move out at night, nor to let me leave them to go out myself."
She smiled up in his face with just a hint of a little coquette that died in her twenty years before. She said "Good-night," and then she was gone.
Mr. Spencer's footsteps sounded more slowly on the flagstone as he resumed his accustomed evening walk, in which for once his mind was not on London town, and old friends there, but upon the odd thing that while this old maid had smiled upon him, there was a tear very plain upon her cheek.
In the fulness of time, Gilian attained to the highest class in old Brooks' school, pushed up thereto by no honest application of his own, but by the luck that attends on such as have God's gift to begin with. And now that he was among the children of the town he found them lovable, but yet no more lovable than the children of the glen. The magic he had fancied theirs as he surveyed them from a distance, the fascination they had before, even when they had mocked with cries of "Crotal-coat, Crotal-coat," did not very bravely stand a close trial. He was not dismayed at this; he did as we must all be doing through life and changed one illusion for another. It is a wonderful rich world for dreams, and he had a different one every day, as he sat in the peaty odour of instruction.
Old Brooks would perch high on his three-legged stool conning over some exercise while his scholars in their rows behind the knife-hewn inky desks hummed like bees upon their tasks. The hornbooks of the little ones at the bottom of the room would sometimes fall from their hands in the languor of that stagnant atmosphere, but the boys of the upper forms were ever awake for mischief. To the teaching of the Dominie they would come with pockets full of playthings, sometimes animals from the woods and fields about the town—frogs, moles, hedgehogs, or fledgeling birds. Brooks rarely suspected the presence of these distractions in his sacred grove, for he was dull of vision and preferred to see his scholars about him in a vague mist rather than wear in their presence the great horn spectacles that were privy to his room in Crombie's Land. The town's clock staring frankly in at the school windows conveyed to him no knowledge of the passing enemy, and, as his watch had been for a generation but a bulge upon his vest, he must wait till the hour struck ere he knew it was meridian and time to cross the playground and into Kate Bell's for his glass of waters. "Silence till I return!" he would say, whipping on his better coat and making for the door that had no sooner shut on him than tumult reigned.
On his way back from the tavern he would meet, perhaps, the Paymaster making for the house of the Sergeant More. "I cannot understood," would the Paymaster say, "what makes you take your drams in so common a civilian house as that. A man and a soldier keeps the Abercrombie, a fellow who fought for his country. And look at the company! MacNicol and Major Hall—and—and—myself and some of the best in the burgh; yet you must be frequenting a low tavern with only merchants and mice and fisherman to say 'Good health' to."
Master Brooks had always his answer very pat.
"I get a great abundance of old war tales in my books," he would say drily. "And told with a greater ingenuity—not to mention veracity—than pertain to the legends and histories of you old campaigners. Between ourselves, I'm not for war at all, but for the far finer and more wholesome rarity called peace. Captain, Captain!" (and here would he grasp the Paymaster by the coat lapels with the friendly freedom of an old acquaintance,) "Captain, Captain! it is not a world for war though we are the fools to be fancying so, but a world for good-fellowship, so short the period we have of it, so wonderful the mind of them about us, so kind with all their faults! I find more of the natural human in the back room of Kate's there where the merchants discourse upon their bales and accounts than I would among your half-pay gentry who would have the country knee-deep in blood every day in the calendar if they had their way of it."
"It's aye the old story with you," the Paymaster would say tolerantly. "You cannot see that if this country has not its wars and rumours of wars, its marchings-off and weedings-out, it would die of a rot. I hope you are not putting too many notions of that clerkly kind in the boy's head. Eh? I would be vexed to have my plans for him spoiled and a possible good soldier turned into a swindling writer."
"The boy's made, Captain Campbell," said the schoolmaster one day at this. "He was made and his end appointed ere ever he came to your house or felt my ferule-end. He is of the dream nature and he will be what he will be. I can no more fashion him to the common standard than I can make the fir-tree like unto the juniper. I've had many a curious student yonder, wild and tame, dunce and genius, but this one baffles me. He was a while up in the glen school, they tell me, and he learned there such rudiments as he has, but what he knows best was never learned anywhere but as the tinkler learns—by the roadside and in the wood."
"I know he's a droll one," said the Paymaster, uneasily, with a thoughtful brow, "but you have the reputation, Mr. Brooks, you have turned out lads who were a credit to you. If it is not in him, thwack it in with your tawse."
The Dominie flushed a little. He never cared to have the tawse mentioned; it was an ally he felt ashamed of in his fight with ignorance and he used it rarely, though custom and the natural perverse-ness of youth made its presence necessary in his desk.
"Captain Campbell," said he, "it is not the tawse that ever put wisdom into a head like yon. The boy is unco, the boy is a lusus naturo, that is all; as sharp as a needle when his interest is aroused, as absent as an idiot when it is not, and then no tawse or ferule will avail."
And while the Paymaster and the Dominie were thus discussing Gilian, the school would be in a tumult whereof he was sometimes the leader. To him the restraints were galling shackles. When the classes would be humming in the drowsy afternoon and the sharp high voice of old Brooks rose above the murmur as he taught some little class in the upper corner, the boy would be gazing with vacant eyes at the whitewashed wall in front of him, or looking out at the beech branches that tapped in faint breezes at the back windows, or listening with an ecstatic ear to the crisp contact of stone and scythe as the mowers in the fields behind put a new edge on their instruments. Oh! the outer world was ever the world of charm for him, winter or summer, as he sat in that constrained and humming school. That sound of scythes a-sharping was more pleasing to his ear than the poetry Mr. Brooks imposed upon his scholars, showing, himself, how to read it with a fierce high limping accent as if it were a thing offensive. When hail or rain rattled on the branches, when snow in great flakes settled down or droves of cattle for distant markets went bellowing through the street, it was with difficulty the boy kept himself to his seat and did not rise and run out where his fancy so peremptorily called.
If he learned from books at all, it was from the wonderful, dusty, mildewed volumes that Marget Maclean had on her shelves behind the post-office. She was one of three sisters and they were all so much alike that Gilian, with many other boys, never learned to know one from the other, so it was ever Marget who was behind the counter, a thin old lady of carefully nurtured gentility, with cheeks like a winter apple for hue, with eyebrows arching high in a perpetual surprise at so hurried and ridiculous a world, and a curled brown wig that was suspected of doing duty for the three sisters who were never seen but one at a time. Marget Maclean's little shop was the dullest in the street, but it was the anteroom of fairydom for Gilian who borrowed books there with the pence cozened from Miss Mary. In the choosing of them he had no voice. He had but to pay his penny and Marget would peer through her glasses at the short rows of volumes until she came upon the book she thought most suited for her customer.
"You will find that a good one," she would say. "The one you mention is not at all good; it was very fashionable last spring, but it is not asked for now at all." And in proof that the volume she recommended was quite genteel, she would add: "That one was up at the Castle last Saturday. Lady Charlotte's maid, you will notice, wet all the pages crying over the places where the lover went to sea another voyage. It is a very clever book, my dear, and I think there is a moral, I do not remember what the moral is, but I know there is one or else I would not recommend it. It is in large black type you see, and there is a great deal of speaking in parlours in it, which is always informing and nice in a book."
"You have none of Mr. Scott's poetry?" asked Gilian one day, moved thereto by an extract read by Brooks to his scholars.
"Scott, Scott," said Miss Marget. "Now let me think, my dear."
She turned her odd thin figure and her borrowed curls bobbed behind her ears as she tilted up her head and glanced along the shelves for what she knew was not there.
"No, my boy," she said. "We have none of Mr. Scott's works at present. There is a demand among some people for Mr. Scott I believe, but," here she frowned slightly, "I do not think you are old enough for poetry. It is too romantic, and—it lingers in the memory. I have not read him myself though I hear he is clever—in a way. I would not say that I object to Mr. Scott, but I do not recommend him to my young customers."
So off Gilian would go with his book under his arm to the Ramparts. The Ramparts were about the old Tolbooth and kept crime within and the sea without. Up would the tide come in certain weathers thrashing on the granite cubes, beating as it might be for freedom to the misunderstood within, beating and hissing and falling back and dashing in again and streaming out between the joints of masonry in briny jets. Half-way up the Ramparts was a foot-wide ledge, and here the boy would walk round the bastions and in the square face to the sea would sit upon the ledge with his legs dangling over the water and read his volume. It might be the "Mysteries of Udolpho," "Thaddeus of Warsaw," "Moll Flanders," or "Belinda," the story of one Random, a wandering vagabond, or Crusoe, but no matter where the story led, the boy whose feet dangled over the sea was there. And long though the tale might be Gilian pieced it out in fancy by many pages. His situation on the Ramparts was an aid to his imagination, for as he sat there the sea would be sluggishly rolling below or beating in petulant waves and he floated, as it were, between sea and sky, as free from earth's clogging influence as the gannet that soared above.
He sought the Ramparts because for a boy of his age to read in books, except as a task of the school, was something shameful; and he had been long accustomed to the mid-air trip upon the walls ere some other boys discovered him guilty, flushing and trembling with a story book in his hand. They looked with astonishment at their discovery and were prepared to jeer when his wits came to his rescue. He tore out one or two leaves of the book, twisted them into a rough semblance of a boat and cast them in the water.
"Watch," said he, "you'll see the big ones are sunk sooner than the little ones."
"Do not tear the good book," said one of the boys, Young Islay, shocked, or pretending to be so, at the destruction.
"Oh! it's only a stupid story," said Gilian, tearing again at the treasure, with an agony that could have been no greater had it been his heart. He had to forego many books from Marget Maclean to make up for this one, but at least he had escaped the irony of his companions.
Yet not books were his first lovers and friends and teachers, so much as the creatures of the wild, and the aspects of nature. Often the Dominie missed him from his accustomed place at the foot of the class, and there was no explanation to offer when he returned. He had suffered again the wood's fascination. In the upper part of the glen he had been content with little clumps and plantings, the caldine woods of Kincreggan or the hazels whereof the shepherds made their crooks. But the forest lay for miles behind the town, a great land of shade and pillars where the winds roved and tangled. It abounded in wild life, and sounded ever in spring and summer with songs and cries. Into its glades he would wander and stand delirious to the solitude, tingling to the wild. The dim vistas about him had no affrights; he was at home, he was the child of the tranquil, the loving mother, whose lap is the pasture-land and forest. Autumn fills those woods with the very breath of melancholy, no birds will sing in the multitudinous cloisters except the birds of the night whose melody is one doleful and mocking note. The bracken burns and withers, lush grass rots and whitens above the fir-roots, the birds flit from shade to shade with no carolling. And over all will stand the trees sleeping with their heads a-nod.
He would walk among the noisy fallen leaves, posturing the heroes of his reading or his own imagination about him in the landscape—a pleasant recreation. He would set Bruce the king himself sitting at a cave-mouth, a young gentleman with a queue like Turner's, pondering upon freedom, while the spiders wrought for his instruction; deer breaking from covert to dash away, or moving in stately herds across the forest openings, became a foreign cavalry. Sometimes he would take a book to the upper hunting-roads, where rarely any intrusion came except from some gillie or fisher of the lochs far back in the moors, and stretched on dry bracken he would read and dream for hours.
It was in such an attitude Young Islay found him on the Saturday after the episode on the Ramparts. Gilian was in the midst of the same book, trying hard to fill up the gaps that his sacrifice of leaves had brought into the narrative, and Young Islay going a-fishing in the moor-lochs, a keen sportsman all alone, stood over him a very much surprised discoverer.
He gave an halloo that brought Gilian to his feet alarmed, for it happened to fit in with some passage in his mind where foes cried. In vain the book went behind the Paymaster's boy; Islay saw the ragged pages.
"Oh!" he cried, "you'll not cheat me this time; you're reading." An annoying contempt was in his manner, and as he stood with his basket slung upon his back, and his rod in the crook of an arm, like a gun, a straight, sturdy lad of neat limb, a handsome face, and short black curls, he was, for a moment, more admirable in Gilian's eyes than the hero of the book he was ashamed to show.
"I had it in my pocket," said Gilian, in a poor, ineffective explanation, relinquishing the volume with a grudge to the examination of this cynic.
"You pretended on the Ramparts you were tearing it up like any other boy," said Young Islay, "and I was sure you were doing nothing of the kind." He turned over the pages with scornful fingers. "It's not a school-book, there's not a picture in it, it's full of talking—fancy being here with that rubbish, when you might be fishing with me!"
Gilian snatched the volume from him. "You don't know anything about it!" he cried.
"I know you at any rate," said Young Islay craftily. "You were ashamed of your book; you come here often with books; you do nothing like anybody else; you should have been a girl!"
All the resentment of the Paymaster's boy sprung to his head at this taunt; he threw the book down and dashed a small fist in Young Islay's face. There he found a youth not slow to reply. Down went the rod and the book, and with the fishing-basket swinging and beating at his back, Young Islay fell upon the zealous student. Gilian's arms, as he defended or aimed futile blows, felt, in a little, as heavy as lead. Between each blow he aimed there seemed to be a great space of time, and yet his enemy was striking with rapidity.
"Are you beaten?" at last cried Young Islay, drawing back for a truce.
"No," said Gilian, gasping. "I'm only tired,'' but he looked bloody and vanquished.
"It's the same thing," said Young Islay, picking up his rod. "You can do nothing with your hands; I—I can do anything." And he drew up with a bantam's vanity. He moved off. The torn book was in his path. He kicked it before him like a football until he reached the ditch beside the hunting road, and there he left it. A little later Gilian saw him in a distant vista of the trees as an old hunter of the wood, with a gun in his hand and his spoil upon his back, breasting the brae with long strides, a figure of achievement altogether admirable.
CHAPTER X—ON HIS MAJESTY'S SERVICE
Marget Maclean (or one of her sisters) was accustomed when the mails contained a letter on His Majesty's Service for the Paymaster, to put on a bonnet, and in a mild flurry cross the street, feeling herself a sharer in the great matters of State. So important was the mission that she had been known even to shut her shop door for the time of her absence upon eager and numerous youths waiting the purchase of her superior "black man," a comfit more succulent with her than with Jenny Anderson in Crombie's Land, or on older patrons seeking the hire of the new sensation in literature—something with a tomb by Mrs. Radcliffe.
"Tell your mistress I wish to see her," she would say on these occasions with great pomp to Peggy, but even Miss Mary was not sufficiently close to State to be entrusted with the missive. "Goodday, Miss Campbell, I called to see Captain John on important business," and the blue document with its legend and seal would be clutched with mittened hands tight to the faded bodice.
Miss Mary shared some of this awe for State documents; at least she helped out the illusion that they were worth all this anxiety on the part of the post-office, and she would call the Paymaster from his breakfast. His part on the other hand was to depreciate their importance. He would take the most weighty and portentous with an air of contempt.
"What's this, Miss Maclean?" he would say impatiently with the snuff-pinch suspended between his pocket and his nose. "A king's letter. Confound the man! what can he be wanting now?" Then with a careless forefinger he would break the seal and turn the paper outside in, heedless (to all appearance) as if it were an old copy of the Courier.
One day such a letter sent his face flaming as he returned to the breakfast table. He looked at Miss Mary, sitting subdued behind her urn and Gilian at her side, and then at his brothers, hardly yet awake in the early morning, whose breakfasts in that small-windowed room it needed two or three candles to illuminate.
"The county corps is coming south this way," said he, with a great restraint upon his feelings.
Cornal Colin turned on him a lustreless eye.
"What havers are you on now, John?" said he, with no pause in the supping of his porridge. Dugald paid no heed. With a hand a little palsied he buttered a scone, and his lower lip was dropped and his eyes were vacant, showing him far absent in the spirit. Conversation was never very rife at the Paymaster's breakfast table.
"I'm telling you the county corps is coming south," said Mars, with what for him to the field officer was almost testiness. "Here's a command for billeting three hundred men on Friday night on their way to Dumbarton."
Up stood the Cornal with a face transfigured. He stretched across the table and almost rudely clutched the paper from his brother's hand, cast a fast glance at the contents and superscription, then sat again and gave a little choked cheer, the hurrah of spent youth and joyfulness. "Curse me! but it's true," he cried to the General. "The old 91st under Crawford—Jiggy Crawford we called him for his dance in the ken at Madrid before he exchanged—Friday, Friday; where's my uniform, Mary? They'll be raw recruits, I'll warrant, not the old stuff, but—are you hearing, Dugald? Oh! the Army, the Army! Let me see—yes, it says six pipers and thirty band. My medals, Mary, are they in the shuttle of my kist yet? The 91st—God! I wish it was our own; would I not show them! You are not hearing a word I am saying, Dugald."
He paused in a feverish movement in his chair, thrust off from him with a clatter of dishes and a spilling of milk the breakfast still unfinished, and stared with annoyance at the General. Dugald picked at his fish with no appetite, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, a silent old man palsied on one side, with a high bald head full of visions. "What's that about the Argyls?" he said at last, with a start, brought to by the tone and accent of his brother.
Cornal Colin cleared his throat, and read the notification of the billet
"Friday, did you say Friday?" asked Dugald, all abstraction gone.
"This very Friday."
The old man rose and threw back his shoulders with some of the gallantry of his prime. He walked without a word to the window and looked at the deserted street. Ten—fifteen—twenty years fell from his back as thus he stood in the mingled light of the wan reluctant morning and the guttering candles on the table. To Miss Mary, looking at him there against the morning light, his figure—black and indefinite—was the figure that went to Spain, the strong figure, the straight figure, the figure that filled its clothes with manliness. There was but the oval of the bald high head to spoil the illusion. He turned again and looked into the candle-lit room, but seeing nothing there, for all his mind was elsewhere.