'I'll tak care o' ye, Steenie, my man!' she murmured. 'Fear ye naething.'
It is amazing how much, in the strength of its own divinity, love will dare promise!
'Ay, Kirsty, I ken ye wull, but it's no me!' said Steenie.
Thereupon he gave a brief, lucid account of what had occurred in the night.
'And noo 'at I hae telt ye,' he added, 'it luiks a' sae strange 'at maybe I hae been but dreamin, efter a'! But it maun be true, for that maun hae been what the angels cam cryin upo' me for. I'm thinkin they wud hae broucht me straucht til her themsels—they maistly gang aboot in twas, as whan they gaed and waukent the bonny man—gien it hadna been 'at the guid collie was aiqual to that!'
Kirsty told him to go and rouse the kitchen fire, and she would be with him in a minute. She sprang out of bed, and dressed as fast as she could, thinking what she had best take with her. 'The puir lassie,' she said to herself, 'may be growin warm, and sleepin deith awa; and by the time we win there she'll be needin something, like the lassie 'at the Lord liftit!' But in her heart she had little hope: it would be a sad day for the schoolmaster.
She went to her father and mother's room, found them awake, and told them Steenie's tale.
'It's time we war up, wuman!' said David.
'Ay,' returned his wife, 'but Kirsty canna bide for 's. Ye maun be aff, lassie! Tak a wee whusky wi' ye; but min' it's no that safe wi' frozen fowk. Het milk's the best thing. Tak a drappie o' that wi' ye. I s' be efter ye wi' mair. And dinna forget a piece to uphaud ye as ye gang; it'll be ill fechtin the win'. Dinna lat Steenie gang back wi' ye; he canna be fit. Sen' him to me, and I'll persuaud him.—Dauvid, man, ye'll hae to saiddle and ride; the doctor maun gang wi' ye straught to Steenie's hoose.'
'Lat me up,' said David, making a motion to free himself of the bedclothes.
Kirsty went, and got some milk to make it hot. But when she reached the kitchen, Steenie was not there, and the fire, which he had tried to wake up, was all but black. The house-door was open, and the snow drifting in. Steenie was gone into the storm again! She hurriedly poured the milk into a small bottle, and thrust it into her bosom to grow warm as she went. Then she lighted a lantern, chiefly that Steenie might catch sight of it, and set out.
She started running, certain, she thought, to overtake him. The wind was up again, but it was almost behind her, and the night was not absolutely dark, for the moon was somewhere. She was far stronger than Steenie, and could walk faster, but, keen as was her outlook on all sides, for the snow was not falling too thick to let her see a little way through it, she was at length near the top of the Horn without having caught a glimpse of him. Had he dropped on the way? Had she in her haste left him after all in the house? She might have passed him; that was easy to do. One thing she was sure of—he could not have got to his house before her!
As she drew near the door she heard a short howl, and knew it for Snootie's. Perhaps Phemy had revived! But no! it was a desolate, forsaken cry! The next moment came a glad bark: was it the footstep of Kirsty it greeted, or the soul of Phemy?
With steady hand, and heart prepared, she opened the door and went in. The dog came bounding to her: either he counted himself relieved, or could bear it no longer. He cringed at her feet; he leaped upon her; he saw in her his saviour from the terrible silence and cold and motionlessness. Then he stood still before her, looking up to her, and wagging his tail, but his face said plainly: It is there!
Kirsty hesitated a moment; a weary sense of uselessness had overtaken her, and she shrank from encountering the unchanging and unchangeable; but she cast off the oppression, and followed the dog to the bedside. He jumped up, and lay down where his master had placed him, as if to say he knew his duty, had been lying there all the time, and had only got up the moment she came. It was the one warm spot in all the woollen pile; the feet beneath it were cold as the snow outside, and the lovely form lay motionless as a thing that would never move again. Kirsty lifted the blanket: there was Phemy's face, blind with the white death! It did not look at her, did not recognise her: Phemy was there and not there! Phemy was far away! Phemy could not move from where she lay!
Hopeless, Kirsty yet tried her best to wake her from her snow-sleep, shrinking from nothing, except for the despair of it. But long ere she gave up the useless task, she was thinking far more about Steenie than Phemy.
He did not come! 'He must be safe with his mother!' she kept saying in her heart; but she could not reassure herself. The forsaken fire, the open door haunted her. She would succeed for a moment or two in quieting her fears, calling them foolish; the next they would rush upon her like a cataract, and almost overwhelm her. While she was busy with the dead, he might be slowly sinking into the sleep from which she could not wake Phemy!
She laid the cold snow-captive straight, and left her to sleep on. Then, calling the dog, she left the hut, in the hope of meeting her mother, and learning that Steenie was at home.
Now and then, while at her sad task, she had been reminded of the wind by its hollow roaring all about the hill, but not until she opened the door had she any notion how the snow was falling; neither until she left the hollow for the bare hill-side did she realize how the wind was raging. Then indeed the world looked dangerous! If Steenie was out, if her mother had started, they were lost! She would have gone back into the hut with the dead, but that she might get home in time to prevent her mother from setting out, or might meet her on the way. At the same time the tempest between her and her home looked but a little less terrible to her than a sea breaking on a rocky shore.
HOW KIRSTY FARED
It was quite dark, and round her swept as it were a whirlpool of snow. The swift fakes struck at her eyes and ears like a swarm of vicious flies. In such a wind, the blows of the soft thin snow, beating upon her face, now from one quarter, now from another, were enough to bewilder even a strong woman like Kirsty. They were like hail to a horse. After trying for a while to force her way, she suddenly became aware of utter ignorance as to the direction in which she was going, and, for the first time in her life, a fell terror possessed her—not for herself, but for Steenie and her father and mother. To herself, Kirsty was nobody, but she belonged to David and Marion Barclay, and what were they and Steenie to do without her! They would go on looking for her till they too died, and were buried yards deep in the snow!
She kept struggling on, her head bent, and her body leaning forward, forcing herself against, it hardly seemed through, the snow-filled wind—but whither? It was only by the feel of the earth under her feet, that she could tell, and at times she was by no means sure, whether she was going up or down hill. She kept on and on, almost hopeless of getting anywhere, certain of nothing but that, if once she sat down, she would never rise again. Fatigue that must not yield, and the in-roads of the cold sleep, at length affected her brain, and her imagination began to take its own way with her. She thought herself condemned to one of those awful dust-towers, for she had read Prideaux, specially devilish invention of the Persians, in which by the constant stirring of the dust so that it filled the air, the lungs of the culprit were at length absolutely choked up. Dead of the dust, she revived to the snow: it was fearfully white, for it was all dead faces; she crushed and waded through those that fell, while multitudes came whirling upon her from all sides. Gladly would she have thrown herself down among them, but she must walk, walk on for ever!
All the time, she felt in her dim suffering as if not she but those at home suffered: she had deserted them in trouble, and do what she might she would never get back to them! She could, she thought, if she but put forth the needful energy, but the last self-exhaustive effort never would come!
Where was the dog? He had left her! he was nowhere near her! She tried to call him, but the storm choked every sound in her very throat. He would never have left her to save himself! He who makes the dogs must be at least as faithful as they! So she was not left comfortless!
Then she heard, or thought she heard the church-bell, and that may have had something to do with the strange dream out of which she came gradually to herself.
Her dream was this:—
She sat at the communion-table in her own parish-church, with many others, none of whom she knew. A man with piercing eyes went along the table, examining the faces of all to see if they were fit to partake. When he came to Kirsty, he looked at her for a moment sharply, then said, 'That woman is dead. She has been in the snow all night. Lay her in the vault under the church.' She rose to go because she was dead, and hands were laid upon her to guide her as she went. They brought her out of the church into the snow and wind, and turned away to leave her. But she remonstrated: 'The man with the eyes,' she said, 'gave the order that I should be taken to the vault of the church!'—'Very well,' answered a voice, 'there is the vault! creep into it.' She saw an opening in the ground, at the foot of the wall of the church, and getting down on her hands and knees, crept through it, and with difficulty got into the vault. There all was still. She heard the wind raving, but it sounded afar off. Who had guided her thither? One of Steenie's storm-angels, or the Shepherd of the sheep? It was all one, for the storm-angels were his sheep-dogs! She had been bewildered by the terrible beating of the snow-wind, but her own wandering was another's guiding! Beyond the turmoil of life and unutterably glad, she fell asleep, and the dream left her. In a little while, however, it came again.
She was lying, she thought, on the stone-floor of the church-vault, and wondered whether the examiner, notwithstanding the shining of his eyes, might not have made a mistake: perhaps she was not so very dead! Perhaps she was not quite unfit to eat of the bread of life after all! She moved herself a little; then tried to rise, but failed; tried again and again, and at last succeeded. All was dark around her, but something seemed present that was known to her—whether man, or woman, or beast, or thing, she could not tell. At last she recognised it; it was a familiar odour, a peculiar smell, of the kind we call earthy:—it was the air of her own earth-house, in days that seemed far away! Perhaps she was in it now! Then her box of matches might be there too! She felt about and found it. With trembling hands she struck one, and proceeded to light her lamp.
It burned up. Something seized her by the heart.
A little farther in, stretched on the floor, lay a human form on its face. She knew at once that it was Steenie's. The feet were toward her, and between her and them a pair of shoes: he was dead!—he had got rid of his feet!—he was gone after Phemy—gone to the bonny man! She knelt, and turned the body over. Her heart was like a stone. She raised his head on her arm: it was plain he was dead. A small stream of blood had flowed from his mouth, and made a little pool, not yet quite frozen. Kirsty's heart seemed about to break from her bosom to go after him; then the eternal seemed to descend upon her like a waking sleep, a clear consciousness of peace. It was for a moment as if she saw the Father at the heart of the universe, with all his children about his knees: her pain and sorrow and weakness were gone; she wept glad tears over the brother called so soon from the nursery to the great presence chamber. 'Eh, bonny man!' she cried; 'is 't possible to expec ower muckle frae your father and mine!'
She sat down beside what was left of Steenie, and ate of the oatcake, and drink of the milk she had carried forgotten until now.
'I won'er what God 'll du wi' the twa!' she said to herself. 'Gien I lo'ed them baith as I did, he lo'es them better! I wud hae dee'd for them; he did!'
She rose and went out.
Light had come at last, but too dim to be more than gray. The world was one large white sepulchre in which the earth lay dead. Warmth and hope and spring seemed gone for ever. But God was alive; his hearth-fire burned; therefore death was nowhere! She knew it in her own soul, for the Father was there, and she knew that in his soul were all the loved. The wind had ceased, but the snow was still falling, here and there a flake. A faint blueness filled the air, and was colder than the white. Whether the day was at hand or the night, she could not distinguish. The church bell began to ring, sounding from far away through the silence: what mountains of snow must yet tower unfallen in the heavens, when it was nearly noon, and still so dark! But Steenie was out of the snow—that was well! Or perhaps he was beside her in it, only he could leave it when he would! Surely anyhow Phemy must be with him! She could not be left all alone and she so silly! Steenie would have her to teach! His trouble must have gone the moment he died, but Phemy would have to find out what a goose she was! She would be very miserable, and would want Steenie! Kirsty's thoughts cut their own channels: she was as far ahead of her church as the woman of Samaria was ahead of the high priest at Jerusalem.
Thus thinking, thinking, she kept on walking through the snow to weep on her mother's bosom. Suddenly she remembered, and stood still: her mother was going to follow her to Steenie's house! She too must be dead in the snow!—Well, let Heaven take all! They were born to die, and it was her turn now to follow her mother! She started again for home, and at length drew near the house.
It was more like a tomb than a house. The door looked as if no one had gone in there or out for ages. Had she slept in the snow like the seven sleepers in the cave? Were the need and the use of houses and doors long over? Or was she a ghost come to have one look more at her old home in a long dead world? Perhaps her father and mother might have come back with like purpose, and she would see and speak to them! Or was she, alas! only in a dream, in which the dead would not speak to her? But God was not dead, and while God lived she was not alone even in a dream!
A dark bundle lay on the door-step: it was Snootie. He had been scratching and whining until despair came upon him, and he lay down to die.
She lifted the latch, stepped over the dog, and entered. The peat-fire was smouldering low on tho hearth. She sat down and closed her eyes. When she opened them, there lay Snootie, stretched out before the fire! She rose and shut the door, fed and roused the fire, and brought the dog some milk, which he lapped up eagerly.
Not a sound was in the house. She went all over it. Father nor mother was there. It was Sunday, and all the men were away. A cow lowed, and in her heart Kirsty blessed her: she was a live creature! She would go and milk her!
HOW DAVID FARED
David Barclay got up the moment Kirsty was out of the room, dressed himself in haste, swallowed a glass of whisky, saddled the gray mare, gave her a feed of oats, which she ate the faster that she felt the saddle, and set out for Tiltowie to get the doctor. Threatening as the weather was, he was well on the road before the wind became so full of snow as to cause him any anxiety, either for those on the hill or for himself. But after the first moment of anxiety, a very few minutes convinced him that a battle with the elements was at hand more dangerous than he had ever had to fight with armed men. For some distance the road was safe enough as yet, for the storm had not had time to heap up the snow between the bordering hills; but by and by he must come out upon a large track recovered by slow degrees and great labour from the bog, and be exposed to the full force of the now furious wind, where in many places it would be far easier to wander off than to stay upon a road level with the fields, and not even bounded by a ditch the size of a wheel-track. When he reached the open, therefore, he was compelled to go at a footpace through the thick, blinding, bewildering tempest-driven snow; and was not surprised when, in spite of all his caution, he found, by the sudden sinking and withdrawing of one of his mare's legs with a squelching noise, that he had got astray upon the bog, nor knew any more in what direction the town or other abode of humanity lay. The only thing he did know was the side of the road to which he had turned; and that he knew only by the ground into which he had got: no step farther must in that direction be attempted. His mare seemed to know this as well as himself, for when she had pulled her leg out, she drew back a pace, and stood; whereupon David cast a knot on the reins, threw them on her neck, and told her to go where she pleased. She turned half round and started at once, feeling her way at first very carefully. Then she walked slowly on, with her head hanging low. Again and again she stopped and snuffed, diverged a little, and went on.
The wind was packed rather than charged with snow. Men said there never was a wind of the strength with so much snow in it. David began to despair of ever finding the road again, and naturally in such strait thought how much worse would Kirsty and Steenie be faring on the open hill-side. His wife, he knew, could not have started before the storm rose to tempest, and would delay her departure. Then came the reflection, how little at any time could a father do for the wellbeing of his children! The fact of their being children implied their need of an all-powerful father: must there not then be such a father? Therewith the truth dawned upon him, that first of truths, which all his church-going and Bible-reading had hitherto failed to disclose, that, for life to be a good thing and worth living, a man must be the child of a perfect father, and know him. In his terrible perturbation about his children, he lifted up his heart—not to the Governor of the world; not to the God of Abraham or Moses; not in the least to the God of the Kirk; least of all to the God of the Shorter Catechism; but to the faithful creator and Father of David Barclay. The aching soul which none but a perfect father could have created capable of deploring its own fatherly imperfection, cried out to the father of fathers on behalf of his children, and as he cried, a peace came stealing over him such as he had never before felt.
Then he knew that his mare had been for some time on hard ground, and was going with purpose in her gentle trot. In five minutes more, he saw the glimmer of a light through the snow. Near as it was, or he could not have seen it, he failed repeatedly in finding his way to it. The mare at length fell over a stone wall out of sight in the snow, and when they got up they found themselves in a little garden at the end of a farmhouse. Not, however, until the farmer came to the door, wondering who on such a morning could be their visitor, did he know to what farm the mare had brought him. Weary, and well aware that no doctor in his senses would set out for the top of the Horn in such a tempest of black and white, he gratefully accepted the shelter and refreshment of which his mare and he stood by this time in much need, and waited for a lull in the storm.
HOW MARION FARED
In the meantime the mother of the family, not herself at the moment in danger, began to suffer the most. It dismayed her to find, when she came down, that Steenie had, as she thought, insisted on accompanying Kirsty, but it was without any great anxiety that she set about preparing food with which to follow them.
She was bending over her fire, busy with her cooking, when all at once the wind came rushing straight down the chimney, blew sleet into the kitchen, blew soot into the pot, and nearly put out the fire. It was but a small whirlwind, however, and presently passed.
She went to the door, opened it a little way, and peeped out: the morning was a chaos of blackness and snow and wind. She had been born and brought up in a yet wilder region, but the storm threatened to be such as in her experience was unparalleled.
'God preserve 's!' cried the poor woman, 'can this be the en' o' a'thing? Is the earth turnin intil a muckle snaw-wreath, 'at whan a' are deid, there may be nae miss o' fowk to beery them? Eh, sic a sepulchrin! Mortal wuman cudna carry a basket in sic a leevin snaw-drift! Losh, she wudna carry hersel far! I maun bide a bit gien I wad be ony succour till them! It's my basket they'll be wantin', no me; and i' this drift, basket may flee but it winna float!'
She turned to her cooking as if it were the one thing to save the world. Let her be prepared for the best as well as for the worst! Kirsty might find Phemy past helping, and bring Steenie home! Then there was David, at that moment fighting for his life, perhaps!—if he came home now, or any of the three, she must be ready to save their lives! they must not perish on her hands. So she prepared for the possible future, not by brooding on it, but by doing the work of the present. She cooked and cooked, until there was nothing more to be done in that way, and then, having thus cleared the way for it, sat down and cried. There was a time for tears: the Bible said there was! and when Marion's hands fell into her lap, their hour—and not till then, was come. To go out after Kirsty would have been the bare foolishness of suicide, would have been to abandon her husband and children against the hour of their coming need: one of the hardest demands on the obedience of faith is—to do nothing; it is often so much easier to do foolishly!
But she did not weep long. A moment more and she was up and at work again, hanging a great kettle of water on the crook, and blowing up the fire, that she might have hot bottles to lay in every bed. Then she assailed the peat-stack in spite of the wind, making to it journey after journey, until she had heaped a great pile of peats in the corner nearest the hearth.
The morning wore on; the storm continued raging; no news came from the white world; mankind had vanished in the whirling snow. It was well the men had gone home, she thought: there would only have been the more in danger, the more to be fearful about, for all would have been abroad in the drift, hopelessly looking for one another! But oh Steenie, Steenie! and her ain Kirsty!
About half-past ten o'clock the wind began to abate its violence, and speedily sank to a calm, wherewith the snow lost its main terror. She looked out; it was falling in straight, silent lines, flickering slowly down, but very thick. She could find her way now! Hideous fears assailed her, but she banished them imperiously: they should not sap the energy whose every jot would be wanted! She caught up the bottle of hot milk she had kept ready, wrapped it in flannel, tied it, with a loaf of bread, in a shawl about her waist, made up the fire, closed the door, and set out for Steenie's house on the Horn.
HUSBAND AND WIFE
Two hours or so earlier, David, perceiving some Assuagement in the storm, and his host having offered to go at once to the doctor and the schoolmaster, had taken his mare, and mounted to go home. He met with no impediment now except the depth of the snow, which made it so hard for the mare to get along that, full of anxiety about his children, he found the distance a weary one to traverse.
When at length he reached the Knowe, no one was there to welcome him. He saw, however, by the fire and the food, that Marion was not long gone. He put up the gray, clothed her and fed her, drank some milk, caught up a quarter of cakes, and started for the hill.
The snow was not falling so thickly now, but it had already almost obliterated the footprints of his wife. Still he could distinguish them in places, and with some difficulty succeeded in following their track until it was clear which route she had taken. They indicated the easier, though longer way—not that by the earth-house, and the father and daughter passed without seeing each other. When Kirsty got to the farm, her father was following her mother up the hill.
When David reached the Hillfauld, the name he always gave Steenie's house, he found the door open, and walked in. His wife did not hear him, for his iron-shod shoes were balled with snow. She was standing over the body of Phemy, looking down on the white sleep with a solemn, motherly, tearless face. She turned as he drew near, and the pair, like the lovers they were, fell each in the other's arms. Marion was the first to speak.
'Eh Dauvid! God be praised I hae yersel!'
'Is the puir thing gane?' asked her husband in an awe-hushed tone, looking down on the maid that was not dead but sleeping.
'I doobt there's no doobt aboot that,' answered Marion. 'Steenie, I was jist thinkin, wud be sair disapp'intit to learn 'at there was. Eh, the faith o' that laddie! H'aven to him's sic a rale place, and sic a hantle better nor this warl', 'at he wad not only fain be there himsel, but wad hae Phemy there—ay, gie it war ever sae lang afore himsel! Ye see he kens naething aboot sin and the saicrifeece, and he disna un'erstan 'at Phemy was aye a gey wull kin' o' a lassie!'
'Maybe the bonny man, as Steenie ca's him,' returned David, 'may hae as muckle compassion for the puir thing i' the hert o' 'im as Steenie himsel!'
'Ow ay! Whatfor no! But what can the bonny man himsel du, a' bein sattlet?'
'Dinna leemit the Almichty, wuman—and that i' the verra moment whan he's been to hiz—I wunna say mair gracious nor ord'nar, for that cudna be—but whan he's latten us see a bit plainer nor common that he is gracious! The Lord o' mercy 'ill manage to luik efter the lammie he made, ae w'y or ither, there as here. Ye daurna say he didna du his best for her here, and wull he no du his best for her there as weel?'
'Doobtless, Dauvid! But ye fricht me! It souns jist rank papistry— naither mair nor less! What can he du? He canna dee again for ane 'at wudna turn til 'im i' this life! The thing's no to be thoucht!'
'Hoo ken ye that, wuman? Ye hae jist thoucht it yersel! Gien I was you, I wudna daur to say what he cudna du! I' the meantime, what he maks me able to houp, I'm no gaein to fling frae me!'
David was a true man: he could not believe a thing with one half of his mind, and care nothing about it with the other. He, like his Steenie, believed in the bonny man about in the world, not in the mere image of him standing in the precious shrine of the New Testament.
After a brief silence—
'Whaur's Kirsty and Steenie?' he said.
'The Lord kens; I dinna.'
'They'll be safe eneuch.'
'It's no likly.'
'It's sartin,' said David.
And therewith, by the side of the dead, he imparted to his wife the thoughts that drove misery from his heart as he sat on his mare in the storm with the reins on her neck, nor knew whither she went.
'Ay, ay,' returned his wife after a pause, 'ye're unco richt, Dauvid, as aye ye are! And I'm jist conscience-stricken to think 'at a' my life lang I hae been ready to murn ower the sorrow i' my hert, never thinkin o' the glaidness i' God's! What call hed I to greit ower Steenie, whan God maun hae been aye sair pleased wi' him! What sense is there in lamentation sae lang's God's eident settin richt a'! His hert's the safity o' oors. And eh, glaid sure he maun be, wi sic a lot o' his bairns at hame aboot him!'
'Ay,' returned David with a sigh, thinking of his old comrade and the son he had left behind him, 'but there's the prodigal anes!'
'Thank God, we hae nae prodigal!'
'Aye, thank him!' rejoined David; 'but he has prodigals that trouble him sair, and we maun see til't 'at we binna thankless auld prodigals oorsels!'
Again followed a brief silence.
'Eh, but isna it strange?' said Marion. 'Here's you and me stanin murnin ower anither man's bairn, and naewise kennin what's come o' oor ain twa!—Dauvid, what can hae come o' Steenie and Kirsty?'
'The wull o' God's what's come o' them; and God hand me i' the grace o' wussin naething ither nor that same!'
'Haud to that, Dauvid, and hand me till't: we kenna what's comin!'
'The wull o' God's comin,' insisted David. 'But eh,' he added, 'I'm concernt for puir Maister Craig!'
'Weel, lat's awa hame and see whether the twa bena there afore 's!—Eh, but the sicht o' the bonny corp maun hae gien Steenie a sair hert! I wudna won'er gien he never wan ower't i' this life!'
'But what'll we du aboot it or we gang? It's the storm may come on again waur nor ever, and mak it impossible to beery her for a month!'
'We cudna carry her hame atween's, Dauvid—think ye?'
'Na, na; it's no as gien it was hersel! And cauld's a fine keeper— better nor a' the embalmin o' the Egyptians! Only I'm fain to hand Steenie ohn seen her again!'
'Weel, lat's hap her i' the bonny white snaw!' said Marion. 'She'll keep there as lang as the snaw keeps, and naething 'ill disturb her till the time comes to lay her awa!'
'That's weel thoucht o'!' answered David. 'Eh, wuman, but it's a bonny beerial compared wi' sic as I hae aften gien comrade and foe alike!'
They went out and chose a spot close by the house where the snow lay deep. There they made a hollow, and pressed the bottom of it down hard. Then they carried out and laid in it the death-frozen dove, and heaped upon her a firm, white, marble-like tomb of heavenly new-fallen snow.
Without re-entering it, they closed the door of Steenie's refuge, and leaving the two deserted houses side by side, made what slow haste they could, with anxious hearts, to their home. The snow was falling softly, for the wind was still asleep.
DAVID, MARION, KIRSTY, SNOOTIE, AND WHAT WAS LEFT OF STEENIE
Kirsty saw their shadows darken the wall, and turning from her work at the dresser, ran to the door to meet them.
'God be thankit!' cried David.
Marion gave her daughter one loving look, and entering cast a fearful, questioning glance around the kitchen.
'Whaur's Steenie?' she said.
'He's wi' Phemy, I'm thinkin,' faltered Kirsty.
'Lassie, are ye dementit?' her mother almost screamed. 'We're this minute come frae there!'
'He is wi' Phemy, mother. The Lord canna surely hae pairtit them, gangin in maist haudin hans!'
'Kirsty, I haud ye accoontable for my Steenie!' cried Marion, sinking on a chair, and covering her face with her hands.
'It's the wull o' God 'at's accoontable for him, wuman!' answered David, sitting down beside her, and laying hold of her arm.
She burst into terrible weeping.
'He maun be sair at hame wi' the bonny man!' said Kirsty.
'Lassie,' said David, 'you and me and yer mither, we hae naething left but be better bairns, and gang the fester to the bonny man!—Whaur's what's left o' the laddie, Kirsty?'
'Lyin i' my hoose, as he ca'd it. Mine was i' the yerd, his i' the air, he said. He was awa afore I wan to the kitchen. He had jist killt himsel savin at Phemy, rinnin and fechtin on, upo' the barest chance o' savin her life; and sae whan he set off again to gang til her, no bidin for me, he was that forfouchten 'at he hed a bluid-brak in 's breist, and was jist able, and nae mair, to creep intil the weem oot o' the snaw. He didna like the place, and yet had a kin' o' a notion o' the bonny man bein there whiles. I'm thinkin Snootie maun hae won til him, and run hame for help, for I faund him maist deid upo' the door-step.'
David stooped and patted the dog.
'Na, that cudna be,' he said, 'or he wud never hae left him, I'm thinkin.—Ye're a braw dog,' he went on to the collie, 'and I'm thankfu' yer no lyin wi yer tongue oot!—But guid comes to guid doggies!' he added, fondling the creature, who had risen, and feebly set his paws on his knee.
'And ye left him lyin there! Hoo hed ye the hert, Kirsty?' sobbed the mother reproachfully.
'Mother, he was better aff nor ony ither ane o' 's! I winna say, mother, 'at I lo'ed him sae weel as ye lo'ed him, for maybe that wudna be natur—I dinna ken; and I daurna say 'at I lo'e him as the bonny man lo'es his brithers and sisters a'; but I hae yet to learn hoo to lo'e him better. Onygait, the bonny man wantit him, and he has him! And whan I left him there, it was jist as gien I hield him oot i' my airms and said, "Hae, Lord; tak him: he's yer ain!"'
'Ye're i' the richt, Kirsty, my bonny bairn!' said David. 'Yer mither and me, we was never but pleased wi' onything 'at ever ye did.—Isna that true, Mar'on, my ain wuman?'
'True as his word!' answered the mother, and rose, and went to her room.
David sought the yard, saw that all was right with the beasts, and fed them. Thence he made his way to his workshop over the cart-shed, where in five minutes he constructed, with two poles run through two sacks, a very good stretcher, carrying it to the kitchen, where Kirsty sat motionless, looking into the fire.
'Kirsty,' he said, 'ye're 'maist as strong's a man, and I wudna wullinly ony but oor ain three sels laid finger upo' what's left o' Steenie: are ye up to takin the feet o' 'im to fess him hame? Here's what'll mak it 'maist easy!'
Kirsty rose at once.
'A drappy o' milk, and I'm ready,' she answered. 'Wull ye no tak a moofu' o' whusky yersel' father?'
'Na, na; I want naething,' replied David.
He had not yet learned what Kirsty went through the night before, when he asked her to help him carry the body of her brother home through the snow. Kirsty, however, knew no reason why she should not be as able as her father.
He took the stretcher, and they set out, saying nothing to the mother: she was still in her own room, and they hoped she might fall asleep.
'It min's me o' the women gauin til the sepulchre!' said David. 'Eh, but it maun hae been a sair time til them!—a heap sairer nor this hert-brak here!' 'Ye see they didna ken 'at he wasna deid,' assented Kirsty, 'and we div ken 'at Steenie's no deid! He's maybe walkin aboot wi the bonny man—or maybe jist ristin himsel a wee efter the uprisin! Jist think o' his heid bein a' richt, and his een as clear as the bonny man's ain! Eh, but Steenie maun be in grit glee!'
Thus talking as they went, they reached and entered the earth-house. They found no angels on guard, for Steenie had not to get up again.
David wept the few tears of an old man over the son who had been of no use in the world but the best use—to love and be loved. Then, one at the head and the other at the feet, they brought the body out, and laid it on the bier.
Kirsty went in again, and took Steenie's shoes, tying them in her apron.
'His feet's no sic a weicht noo!' she said, as together they carried their burden home.
The mother met them at the door.
'Eh!' she cried, 'I thoucht the Lord had taen ye baith, and left me my lane 'cause I was sae hard-hertit til him! But noo 'at he 's broucht ye back—and Steenie, what there is o' him, puir bairn!—I s' never say anither word, but jist lat him du as he likes.—There, Lord, I hae dune! Pardon thoo me wha canst.'
They carried the forsaken thing up the stair, and laid it on Kirsty's bed, looking so like and so unlike Steenie asleep. Marion was so exhausted, both mind and body, that her husband insisted on her postponing all further ministration till the morning; but at night Kirsty unclothed the untenanted, and put on it a long white nightgown. When the mother saw it lying thus, she smiled, and wept no more; she knew that the bonny man had taken home his idiot.
FROM SNOW TO FIRE
My narrative must now go a little way back in time, and a long way from the region of heather and snow, to India in the year of the mutiny. The regiment in which Francis Gordon served, his father's old regiment, had lain for months besieged in a well known city by the native troops, and had begun to know what privation meant, its suffering aggravated by that of not a few women and children. With the other portions of the Company's army there shut up, it had behaved admirably. Danger and sickness, wounds and fatigue, hunger and death, had brought out the best that was in the worst of them: when their country knew how they had fought and endured, she was proud of them. Had their enemies, however, been naked Zulus, they would have taken the place within a week.
Francis Gordon had done his part, and well.
It would be difficult to analyze the effect of tho punishment Kirsty had given him, but its influence was upon him through the whole of the terrible time—none the less beneficent that his response to her stinging blows was indignant rage. I dare hardly speculate what, had she not defended herself so that he could not reach her, he might not have done in the first instinctive motions of natural fury. It is possible that only Kirsty's skill and courage saved him from what he would never have surmounted the shame of—taking revenge on a woman avenging a woman's wrong: from having deserved to be struck by a woman, nothing but repentant shame could save him.
When he came to himself, the first bitterness of the thing over, he could not avoid the conviction, that the playmate of his childhood, whom once he loved best in the world, and who when a girl refused to marry him, had come to despise him, and that righteously. The idea took a firm hold on him, and became his most frequently recurrent thought. The wale of Kirsty's whip served to recall it a good many nights; and long after that had ceased either to smart or show, the thought would return of itself in the night-watches, and was certain to come when he had done anything his conscience called wrong, or his judgment foolish.
The officers of his mess were mostly men of character with ideas better at least than ordinary as to what became a man; and their influence on one by no means of a low, though of an unstable nature, was elevating. It is true that a change into a regiment of jolly, good-mannered, unprincipled men would within a month have brought him to do as they did; and in another month would have quite silenced, for a time at least, his poor little conscience; but he was at present rising. Events had been in his favour; after reaching India, he had no time to be idle; the mutiny broke out, he must bestir himself, and, as I have said, the best in him was called to the front.
He was specially capable of action with show in it. Let eyes be bent upon him, and he would go far. The presence of his kind to see and laud was an inspiration to him. Left to act for himself, undirected and unseen, his courage would not have proved of the highest order. Throughout the siege, nevertheless, he was noted for a daring that often left the bounds of prudence far behind. More than once he was wounded—once seriously; but even then he was in four days again at his post. His genial manners, friendly carriage, and gay endurance rendered him a favourite with all.
The sufferings of the besieged at length grew such, and there was so little likelihood of the approaching army being able for some time to relieve the place, that orders were issued by the commander-in-chief to abandon it: every British person must be out of the city before the night of the day following. The general in charge thereupon resolved to take advantage of the very bad watch kept by the enemy, and steal away in silence the same night.
The order was given to the companies, to each man individually, to prepare for the perilous attempt, but to keep it absolutely secret save from those who were to accompany them; and so cautious was the little English colony as well as the garrison, that not a rumour of the intended evacuation reached the besiegers, while, throughout the lines and in the cantonments, it was thoroughly understood that, at a certain hour of the night, without call of bugle or beat of drum, everyone should be ready to march. Ten minutes after that hour the garrison was in motion. With difficulty, yet with sufficing silence, the gates were passed, and the abandonment effected.
The first shot of the enemy's morning salutation, earlier than usual, went tearing through a bungalow within whose shattered walls lay Francis Gordon. In a dining-room, whose balcony and window-frame had been smashed the day before, he still slumbered wearily, when close past his head rushed the eighteen-pounder with its infernal scream. He started up, to find the blood flowing from a splinter wound on his temple and cheek-bone. A second shot struck the foot of his long chair. He sprang from it, and hurried into his coat and waistcoat.
But how was all so still inside? Not one gun answered! Firing at such an hour, he thought, the rebels must have got wind of their intended evacuation. It was too late for that, but why did not the garrison reply? Between the shots he seemed to hear the universal silence. Heavens! were their guns already spiked? If so, all was lost!—But it was daylight! He had overslept himself! He ought to have been with his men—how long ago he could not tell, for the first shot had taken his watch. A third came and broke his sword, carrying the hilt of it through the wall on which it hung. Not a sound, not a murmur reached him from the fortifications. Could the garrison be gone? Was the hour past? Had no one missed him? Certainly no one had called him! He rushed into the compound. Not a creature was there! He was alone—one English officer amid a revolted army of hating Indians!
But they did not yet know that their prey had slid from their grasp, for they were going on with their usual gun-reveille, instead of rushing on flank and rear of the retreating column! He might yet elude them and overtake the garrison! Half-dazed, he hurried for the gate by which they were to leave the city. Not a live thing save two starved dogs did he meet on his way. One of them ran from him; the other would have followed him, but a ball struck the ground between them, raising a cloud of dust, and he saw no more of the dog.
He found the gate open, and not one of the enemy in sight. Tokens of the retreat were plentiful, making the track he had to follow plain enough.
But now an enemy he had never encountered before—a sense of loneliness and desertion and helplessness, rising to utter desolation, all at once assailed him. He had never in his life congratulated himself on being alone—not that he loved his neighbour, but that he loved his neighbour's company, making him less aware of an uneasy self. And now first he realized that he had seen his sword-hilt go off with a round shot, and had not caught up his revolver—that he was, in fact, absolutely unarmed.
He quickened his pace to overtake his comrades. On and on he trudged through nothing but rice-fields, the day growing hotter and hotter, and his sense of desolation increasing. Two or three natives passed him, who looked at him, he thought, with sinister eyes. He had eaten no breakfast, and was not likely to have any lunch. He grew sick and faint, but there was no refuge: he must walk, walk until he fell and could walk no more! With the heat and his exertion, his hardly healed wound began to assert itself; and by and by he felt so ill, that he turned off the road, and lay down. While he lay, the eyes of his mind began to open to the fact that the courage he had hitherto been so eager to show, could hardly have been of the right sort, seeing it was gone—evaporated clean.
He rose and resumed his walk, but at every smallest sound started in fear of a lurking foe. With vainest regret he remembered the long-bladed dagger-knife he had when a boy carried always in his pocket. It was exhaustion and illness, true, that destroyed his courage, but not the less was he a man of fear, not the less he felt himself a coward. Again he got into a damp brake and lay down, in a minute or two again got up and went on, his fear growing until, mainly through consciousness of itself, it ripened into abject terror. Loneliness seemed to have taken the shape of a watching omnipresent enemy, out of whose diffusion death might at any moment break in some hideous form.
It was getting toward night when at length he saw dust ahead of him, and soon after, he descried the straggling rear of the retreating English. Before he reached it a portion had halted for a little rest, and he was glad to lie down in a rough cart. Long before the morning the cart was on its way again, Gordon in it, raving with fever, and unable to tell who he was. He was soon in friendly shelter, however, under skilful treatment, and tenderly nursed.
When at length he seemed to have almost recovered his health, it was clear that he had in great measure lost his reason.
KIRSTY SHOWS RESENTMENT
Things were going from bad to worse at castle Weelset. Whether Mrs. Gordon had disgusted her friends or got tired of them, I do not know, but she remained at home, seldom had a visitor, and never a guest. Rumour, busy in country as in town, said she was more and more manifesting herself a slave to strong drink. She was so tired of herself, that, to escape her double, she made it increasingly a bore to her. She never read a book, never had a newspaper sent her, never inquired how things were going on about the place or in any part of the world, did nothing for herself or others, only ate, drank, slept, and raged at those around her.
One morning David Barclay, having occasion to see the factor, went to the castle, and finding he was at home ill, thought he would make an attempt to see Mrs. Gordon, and offer what service he could render: she might not have forgotten that in old days he had been a good deal about the estate. She received him at once, but behaved in such extraordinary fashion that he could not have any doubt she was at least half-drunk: there was no sense, David said, either to be got out of her, or put into her.
At Corbyknowe they heard nothing of the young laird. The papers said a good deal about the state of things in India, but Francis Gordon was not mentioned.
In the autumn of the year 1858, when the days were growing short and the nights cold in the high region about the Horn, the son of a neighbouring farmer, who had long desired to know Kirsty better, called at Corbyknowe with his sister, ostensibly on business with David. They were shown into the parlour, and all were sitting together in the early gloamin, the young woman bent on persuading Kirsty to pay them a visit and see the improvements they had made in house and garden, and the two farmers lamenting the affairs of the property on which they were tenants.
'But I hear there's new grief like to come to the auld lairdship,' said William Lammie, as he sat with an elbow on the tea-table whence Kirsty was removing the crumbs.
'And what may the wisdom o' the country-side be puttin furth the noo?' asked David in a tone of good-humoured irony. 'Weel, as I hear, Mistress Comrie's been to Embro' for a week or twa, and's come hame wi' a gey queer story concernin the young laird—awa oot there whaur there's been sic a rumpus wi' the h'athen so'diers. There's word come, she says, 'at he's fa'en intil the verra glaur o' disgrace, funkin at something they set him til: na, he wudna! And they hed him afore a coort-mairtial as they ca' 't, and broucht it in, she says, bare cooardice, and jist broke him. He'll hae ill shawin the face o' 'm again i' 's ain calf-country!'
'It's a lee,' said Kirsty. 'I s' tak my aith o' that, whaever took the tellin o' 't. There never was mark o' cooard upo' Francie Gordon. He hed his fauts, but no ane o' them luikit that gait. He was a kin' o' saft-like whiles, and unco easy come ower, but, haein little fear mysel, I ken a cooard whan I see him. Something may hae set up his pride—he has eneuch o' that for twa deevils—but Francie was never nae cooard!'
'Dinna lay the lee at my door, I beg o' ye, Miss Barclay. I was but tellin ye what fowk was saying.'
'Fowk's aye sayin, and seldom sayin true. The warst o' 't is 'at honest fowk's aye ready to believe leears! They dinna lee themsel's, and sae it's no easy to them to think anither wad. Thereby the fause word has free coorse and is glorifeed! They're no a' leears 'at spreads the lee; but for them 'at maks the lee, the Lord silence them!'
'Hoots, Kirsty,' said her mother, 'it disna become ye to curse naebody! It's no richt o' ye.'
'It's a guid Bible-curse, mother! It's but a w'y o' sayin "His wull be dune!"'
'Ye needna be sae fell aboot the laird, Miss Barclay! He was nae partic'lar frien o' yours gien a' tales be true!' remarked her admirer.
'I'm tellin ye tales is maistly lees. I hae kenned the laird sin' he was a wee laddie—and afore that; and I'm no gaein to hear him leed upo' and haud my tongue! A lee's a lee whether the leear be a leear or no!—I hae dune.'
She did not speak another word to him save to bid him good-night.
In the beginning of the year, a rumour went about the country that the laird had been seen at the castle, but it died away.
David pondered, but asked no questions, and Mrs. Bremner volunteered no information.
Kirsty of course heard the rumour, but she never took much interest in the goings on at the castle. Mrs. Gordon's doings were not such as the angels desire to look into; and Kirsty, not distantly related to them, and inheriting a good many of their peculiarities, minded her own business.
IN THE WORKSHOP
One night in the month of January, when the snow was falling thick, but the air, because of the cloud-blankets overhead, was not piercing, Kirsty went out to the workshop to tell her father that supper was ready. David was a Jack-of-all-trades—therein resembling a sailor rather than a soldier, and by the light of a single dip was busy with some bit of carpenter's work.
He did not raise his head when she entered, and heard her as if he did not hear. She wondered a little and waited. After a few moments of silence, he said quietly, without looking up—
'Are ye awaur o' onything by ord'nar, Kirsty?
'Na, naething, father,' answered Kirsty, wondering still.
'It's been beirin 'tsel in upo' me at my bench here, 'at Steenie's aboot the place the nicht. I canna help imaiginin he's been upo' this verra flure ower and ower again sin' I cam oot, as gien he wad fain say something, but cudna, and gaed awa again.'
'Think ye he's here at this moment, father?'
'Na, he's no.'
'He used to think whiles the bonny man was aboot!' said Kirsty reflectively.
'My mother was a hielan wuman, and hed the second sicht; there was no mainner o' doobt aboot it!' remarked David, also thoughtfully.
'And what wad ye draw frae that, father?' asked Kirsty.
'Ow, naething verra important, maybe, but just 'at possibly it micht be i' the faimily!'
'I wud like to ken yer verra thoucht, father!'
'Weel, it's jist this: I'm thinkin 'at some may be nearer the deid nor ithers.'
'And, maybe,' supplemented Kirsty, 'some o' the deid may win nearer the livin nor ithers!'
'Ay, that's it! that's the haill o' 't!' answered David.
Kirsty turned her face toward the farthest corner. The place was rather large, and everywhere dark except within the narrow circle of the candle-light. In a quiet voice, with a little quaver in it, she said aloud:
'Gien ye be here, Steenie, and hae the pooer, lat's ken gien there be onything lyin til oor han' 'at ye wuss dune. I'm sure, gien there be, it's for oor sakes and no for yer ain, glaid as we wud a' be to du onything for ye: the bonny man lats ye want for naething; we're sure o' that!'
'Ay are we, Steenie,' assented his father.
No voice came from the darkness. They stood silent for a while. Then David said:
'Gang in, lassie; yer mother 'll be won'erin what's come o' ye. I'll be in in a meenit. I hae jist the last stroke to gie this bit jobby.'
A RACE WITH DEATH
Without a word, but with disappointment in her heart that Steenie had not answered them, Kirsty obeyed. But she went round through the rickyard that she might have a moment's thought with herself. Not a hand was laid upon her out of the darkness, no faintest sound came to her ears through the silently falling snow. But as she took her way between two ricks, where was just room for her to pass, she felt—felt, however, without the slightest sense of material opposition, that she could not go through. Endeavouring afterward to describe what rather she was aware of than felt, she said the nearest she could come to it, but it was not right, was to say that she seemed to encounter the ghost of solidity. Certainly nothing seemed to touch her. She made no attempt to overcome the resistance, and the moment she turned, knew herself free to move in any other direction. But as the house was still her goal, she tried another space between two of the ricks. There again she found she could not pass. Making a third essay in yet another interval, she was once more stopped in like fashion. With that came the conviction that she was wanted elsewhere, and with it the thought of the Horn. She turned her face from the house and made straight for the hill, only that she took, as she had generally done with Steenie, the easier and rather longer way.
The notion of the presence of Steenie, which had been with her all the time, naturally suggested his house as the spot where she was wanted, and thither she sped. But the moment she reached, almost before she entered it, she felt as if it were utterly empty—as if it had not in it even air enough to give her breath.
When a place seems to repel us, when we feel as if we could not live there, what if the cause be that there are no souls in it making it comfortable to the spiritual sense? That the knowledge of such presence would make most people uneasy, is no argument against the fancy: truth itself, its intrinsic, essential, necessary trueness unrecognised, must be repellent.
Kirsty did not remain a moment in Steenie's house, but set her face to go home by the shorter and rougher path leading over the earth-house and across the little burn.
The night continued dark, with an occasional thinning of the obscurity when some high current blew the clouds aside from a little nest of stars. Just as Kirsty reached the descent to the burn, the snow ceased, the clouds parted, and a faint worn moon appeared. She looked just like a little old lady too thin and too tired to go on living more than a night longer. But her waning life was yet potent over Kirsty, and her strange, wasted beauty, dying to rise again, made her glad as she went down the hill through the snow-crowned heather. The oppression which came on her in Steenie's house was gone entirely, and in the face of the pale ancient moon her heart grew so light that she broke into a silly song which, while they were yet children, she made for Steenie, who was never tired of listening to it:
Willy, wally, woo! Hame comes the coo— Hummle, bummle, moo!— Widin ower the Bogie, Hame to fill the cogie! Bonny hummle coo, Wi' her baggy fu' O' butter and o' milk, And cream as saft as silk, A' gethered frae the gerse Intil her tassly purse, To be oors, no hers, Gudewillie, hummle coo! Willy, wally, woo! Moo, Hummlie, moo!
Singing this childish rime, dear to the slow-waking soul of Steenie, she had come almost to the bottom of the hill, was just stepping over the top of tho weem, when something like a groan startled her. She stopped and sent a keen-searching glance around. It came again, muffled and dull. It must be from the earth-house! Somebody was there! It could not be Steenie, for why should Steenie groan? But he might be calling her, and the weem changing the character of the sound! Anyhow she must be wanted! She dived in.
She could scarcely light the candle, for the trembling of her hand and the beating of her heart. Slowly the flame grew, and the glimmer began to spread. She stood speechless, and stared. Out of the darkness at her feet grew the form, as it seemed, of Steenie, lying on his face, just as when she found him there year before. She dropped on her knees beside him.
He was alive at least, for he moved! 'Of course,' thought Kirsty, 'he's alive: he never was anything else!' His face was turned from her, and his arm was under it. The arm next her lay out on the stones, and she took the ice-cold hand in hers: it was not Steenie's! She took the candle, and leaned across to see the face. God in heaven! there was the mark of her whip: it was Francie Gordon! She tried to rouse him. She could not; he was cold as ice, and seemed all but dead. But for the groan she had heard she would have been sure he was dead. She blew out the light, and, swift as her hands could move, took garment after garment off, and laid it, warm from her live heart, over and under him—all save one which she thought too thin to do him any good. Last of all, she drew her stockings over his hands and arms, and, leaving her shoes where Steenie's had lain, darted out of the cave. At the mouth of it she rose erect like one escaped from the tomb, and sped in dim-gleaming whiteness over the snow, scarce to have been seen against it. The moon was but a shred—a withered autumn leaf low fallen toward the dim plain of the west. As she ran she would have seemed to one of Steenie's angels, out that night on the hill, a newly disembodied ghost fleeing home. Swift and shadowless as the thought of her own brave heart, she ran. Her sense of power and speed was glorious. She felt—not thought—herself a human goddess, the daughter of the Eternal. Up height and down hollow she flew, running her race with death, not an open eye, save the eyes of her father and mother, within miles of her in a world of sleep and snow and night. Nor did she slacken her pace as she drew near the house, she only ran more softly. At last she threw the door to the wall, and shot up the steep stair to her room, calling her mother as she went.
BACK FROM THE GRAVE
When David came in to supper, he said nothing, expecting Kirsty every moment to appear. Marion was the first to ask what had become of her. David answered she had left him in the workshop.
'Bless the bairn! what can she be aboot this time o' nicht?' said her mother.
'I kenna,' returned David.
When they had sat eating their supper for ten minutes, vainly expecting her, David went out to look for her. Returning unsuccessful, he found that Marion had sought her all over the house with like result. Then they became uneasy.
Before going to look for her, however, David had begun to suspect her absence in one way or another connected with the subject of their conversation in the workshop, to which he had not for the moment meant to allude. When now he told his wife what had passed, he was a little surprised to find that immediately she grew calm.
'Ow, than, she'll be wi' Steenie!' she said.
Nor did her patience fail, but revived that of her husband. They could not, however, go to bed, but sat by the fire, saying a word or two now and then. The slow minutes passed, and neither of them moved save David once to put on peats.
The house-door flew open suddenly, and they heard Kirsty cry, 'Mother, mother!' but when they hastened to the door, no one was there. They heard the door of her room close, however, and Marion went up the stair. By the time she reached it, Kirsty was in a thick petticoat and buttoned-up cloth-jacket, had a pair of shoes on her bare feet, and was glowing a 'celestial rosy-red.' David stood where he was, and in half a minute Kirsty came in three leaps down the stair to him, to say that Francie was lying in the weem. In less than a minute the old soldier was out with the stable-lantern, harnessing one of the horses, the oldest in the stable, good at standing, and not a bad walker. He called for no help, yet was round at the door so speedily as to astonish even Kirsty, who stood with her mother in the entrance by a pile of bedding. They put a mattress in the bottom of the cart, and plenty of blankets. Kirsty got in, lay down and covered herself up, to make the rough ambulance warm, and David drove off. They soon reached the weem and entered it.
The moment Kirsty had lighted the candle,
'Lassie,' cried David, 'there's been a wuman here!'
'It luiks like it,' answered Kirsty: 'I was here mysel, father!'
'Ay, ay! of coorse, but here's claes—woman's claes! Whaur cam they frae? Wha's claes can they be?'
'Wha's but mine?' returned Kirsty, as she stooped to remove from his face the garment that covered his head.
'The Lord preserve 's!—to the verra stockins upo' the han's o' 'm!'
'I had no dreid, father, o' the Lord seem me as he made me!'
'Lassie,' cried David, with heartfelt admiration, 'ye sud hae been dother til a field-mershall.'
'I wudna be dother til a king!' returned Kirsty. 'Gien I bed to be born again, I wudna be born 'cep it was to Dauvid Barclay.'
'My ain lassie!' murmured her father. 'But, eh,' he added, interrupting his own thoughts, 'we maun hand oor tongues till we've dune the thing we're sent to du!'
They bent at once to their task.
David was a strong man still, and Kirsty was as good at a lift as most men. They had no difficulty in raising Gordon between them, David taking his head and Kirsty his feet, but it was not without difficulty they got him through the passage. In the cart they covered him so that, had he been a new-born baby, he could have taken no harm except it were by suffocation, and then, Kirsty sitting with his head in her lap, they drove home as fast as the old horse could step out.
In the meantime Marion had got her best room ready, and warm. When they reached it, Francie was certainly still alive, and they made haste to lay him in the hot feather-bed. In about an hour they thought he swallowed a little milk. Neither Kirsty nor her parents went to bed that night, and by one or other of them the patient was constantly attended.
Kirsty took the first watch, and was satisfied that his breathing grew more regular, and by and by stronger. After a while it became like that of one in a troubled sleep. He moved his head a little, and murmured like one dreaming painfully. She called her father, and told him he was saying words she could not understand. He took her place and sat near him, when presently his soldier-ears, still sharp, heard indications of a hot siege. Once he started up on his elbow, and put his hand to the side of his head. For a moment he looked wildly awake, then sank back and went to sleep again.
As Marion was by him in the morning, all at once he spoke again, and more plainly.
'Go away, mother!' he said. 'I am not mad. I am only troubled in my mind. I will tell my father you killed me.'
Marion tried to rouse him, telling him his mother should not come near him. He did not seem to understand, but apparently her words soothed him, for he went to sleep once more.
He was gaunt and ghastly to look at. The scar on his face, which Kirsty had taken for the mark of her whip, but which was left by the splinter that woke him, remained red and disfiguring. But the worst of his look was in his eyes, whose glances wandered about uneasy and searching. It was clear all was not right with his brain. I doubt if any other of his tenants would have recognized him.
For a good many days he was like one awake yet dreaming, always dreading something, invariably starting when the door opened, and when quietest would lie gazing at the one by his bedside as if puzzled. He took in general what food they brought him, but at times refused it quite. They never left him alone for more than a moment.
So far were they from giving him up to his mother, that the mere idea of letting her know he was with them never entered the mind of one of them. To the doctor, whom at once they had called in, there was no need to explain the right by which they constituted themselves his guardians: anyone would have judged it better for him to be with them than with her. David said to himself that when Francie wanted to leave them he should go; but he had sought refuge with them, and he should have it: nothing should make him give him up except legal compulsion.
FRANCIS COMES TO HIMSELF
One morning, Kirsty sitting beside him, Francis started to his elbow as if to get up, then seeing her, lay down again with his eyes fixed upon her. She glanced at him now and then, but would not seem to notice him much. He gazed for two or three minutes, and then said, in a low, doubtful, almost timid, voice,
'Ay; what is't, Francie?' returned Kirsty.
'Is't yersel, Kirsty?' he said.
'Ay, wha ither, Francie!'
'Are ye angry at me, Kirsty?'
'No a grain. What gars ye speir sic a queston?'
'Eh, but ye gae me sic a are wi' yer whup—jist here upo' the haffit! Luik.'
He turned the side of his head toward her, and stroked the place, like a small, self-pitying child. Kirsty went to him, and kissed it like a mother. She had plainly perceived that such a scar could not be from her blow, but it added grievously to her pain at the remembrance of it that the poor head which she had struck, had in the very same place been torn by a splinter—for so the doctor said. If her whip left any mark, the splinter had obliterated it.
'And syne,' he resumed, 'ye ca'd me a cooard!'
'Did I du that, ill wuman 'at I was!' she returned, with tenderest maternal soothing.
He laid his arms round her neck, drew her feebly toward him, hid his head on her bosom, and wept.
Kirsty put her arm round him, held him closer, and stroked his head with her other hand, murmuring words of much meaning though little sense. He drew back his head, looked at her beseechingly, and said,
'Div ye think me a cooard, Kirsty?'
'No wi' men,' answered the truthful girl, who would not lie even in ministration to a mind diseased.
'Maybe ye think I oucht to hae strucken ye back whan ye strack me? I wull be a cooard than, lat ye say what ye like. I never did, and I never will hit a lassie, lat her kill me!'
'It wasna that, Francie. Gien I ca'd ye a cooard, it was 'at ye behaved sae ill to Phemy.'
'Eh, the bonny little Phemy! I had 'maist forgotten her! Hoo is she, Kirsty?'
'She's weel—and verra weel,' answered Kirsty; 'she's deid.'
'Deid!' echoed Gordon, with a cry, again raising himself on his elbow. 'Surely it wasna—it wasna 'at the puir wee thing cudna forget me! The thing's no possible! I wasna worth it!'
'Na, na; it wasna ae grain that! Her deein had naething to du wi that— nor wi you in ony w'y. I dinna believe she was a hair waur for ony nonsense ye said til her—shame o' ye as it was! She dee'd upo' the Horn, ae awfu' tempest o' a nicht. She cudna hae suffert lang, puir thing! She hadna the stren'th to suffer muckle. Sae awa she gaed!—and Steenie efter her!' added Kirsty in a lower tone, but Francis did not seem to hear, and said no more for awhile.
'But I maun tell ye the trowth, Kirsty,' he resumed: 'forby yersel, there's them 'at says I'm a cooard!'
'I h'ard ae man say't, only ane, and him only ance.'
'And ye said til 'im, "Ay, I hae lang kenned that!"
'I tellt him whaever said it was a leear!'
'But ye believt it yersel, Kirsty!'
'Wad ye hae me leear and hypocrite forby, to ca' fowk ill names for sayin what I believt mysel!'
'But I am a cooard, Kirsty!'
'Ye are not, Francie. I wunna believe't though yersel say 't! It's naething but a dist o' styte and nonsense 'at's won in throu the cracks ye got i' yer heid, fechtin. Ye was aye a daft kin' o' a cratur, Francie! Gien onybody ever said it, mak ye speed and get yer health again, and syne ye can shaw him plain 'at he's a leear.'
'But I tell ye, Kirsty, I ran awa!'
'I fancy ye wud hae been naething but a muckle idiot gien ye hadna!—Ye didna ley onybody in trouble!—did ye noo?'
'No a sowl 'at I ken o'. Na, I didna do that. The fac was—but nae blame to them—they a' gaed awa and left me my lane, sleepin. I maun hae been terrible tired.'
'I telled ye sae!' cried Kirsty. 'Jist gang ower the story to me, Francie, and I s' tell ye whether ye're a cooard or no. I dinna believe a stime o' 't! Ye never was, and never was likly to be a cooard. I s' be at the boddom o' 't wi' whaever daur threpe me sic a lee!'
But Francis showed such signs of excitement as well as exhaustion, that Kirsty saw she must not let him talk longer.
'Or I'll tell ye what!' she added: '—ye'll tell father and mother and me the haill tale, this verra nicht, or maybe the morn's mornin. Ye maun hae an egg noo, and a drappy o' milk—creamy milk, Francie! Ye aye likit that!'
She went and prepared the little meal, and after taking it he went to sleep.
In the evening, with the help of their questioning, he told them everything he could recall from the moment he woke to find the place abandoned, not omitting his terrors on the way, until he overtook the rear of the garrison.
'I dinna won'er ye was fleyt, Francie,' said Kirsty. 'I wud hae been fleyt mysel, wantin my swoord, and kennin nae God to trust til! Ye maun learn to ken him, Francie, and syne ye'll be feart at naething!'
After that, his memory was only of utterly confused shapes, many of which must have been fancies. The only things he could report were the conviction pervading them all that he had disgraced himself, and the consciousness that everyone treated him as a deserter, and gave him the cold shoulder.
His next recollection was of coming home to, or rather finding himself with his mother, who, the moment she saw him, flew into a rage, struck him in the face, and called him coward. She must have taken him, he thought, to some place where there were people about him who would not let him alone, but he could remember nothing more until he found himself creeping into a hole which he seemed to know, thinking he was a fox with the hounds after him.
'What's my claes like, Kirsty?' he asked at this point.
'They war no that gran',' answered Kirsty, her eyes smarting with the coming tears; 'but ye'll ne'er see a stick (stitch) o' them again: I pat them awa.'
'What w'y 'ill I win up, wantin' them?' he rejoined, with a tremor of anxiety in his voice.
'We'll see aboot that, time eneuch,' answered Kirsty.
'But my mither may be efter me! I wud fain be up! There's no sayin what she michtna be up til! She canna bide me!'
'Dreid ye naething, Francie. Ye're no a match for my leddy, but I s' be atween ye and her. She's no sae fearsome as she thinks! Onygait, she disna fleg me.'
'I left some guid eneuch claes there whan I gaed awa, and I daursay they're i' my room yet—gien only I kenned hoo to win at them!'
'I s' gang and get them til ye—the verra day ye're fit to rise. But ye maunna speyk a word mair the nicht.'
KIRSTY BESTIRS HERSELF
They held a long consultation that night as to what they must do. Plainly the first and most important thing was to rid Francis of the delusion that he had disgraced himself in the eyes of his fellow-officers. This would at once wake him as from a bad dream to the reality of his condition: convinced of the unreality of the idea that possessed him, he would at once, they believed, resume his place in the march of his generation through life. To find means, then, for the attainment of this end, they set their wits to work; and it was almost at once clear to David that the readiest way would be to enter into communication with any they could reach of the officers under whom he had served. His regiment having by this time, however, with the rest of the Company's soldiers, passed into the service of the Queen, a change doubtless involving many other changes concerning which Francis, even were he fit to be questioned, could give no information, David resolved to apply to sir Haco Macintosh, who had succeeded Archibald Gordon in the command, for assistance in finding those who could bear the testimony he desired to possess.
'Divna ye think, father,' said Kirsty, 'it wud be the surest and speediest w'y for me to gang mysel to sir Haco?'
''Deed it wud be that, Kirsty!' answered David. 'There's naething like the bodily presence o' the leevin sowl to gar things gang!'
To this Marion, although at first not a little appalled at the thought of Kirsty alone in such a huge city as Edinburgh, could not help assenting, and the next morning Kirsty started, bearing a letter from her father to his old officer, in which he begged for her the favour of a few minutes' conference on business concerning her father and the son of the late colonel Gordon.
Sir Haco had retired from the service some years before the mutiny, and was living in one of the serenely gloomy squares of the Scots capital. Kirsty left her letter at the door, and calling the next day, was shown to the library, where lady Macintosh as well as sir Haco awaited, with curious and kindly interest, the daughter of the man they had known so well, and respected so much.
When Kirsty entered the room, dressed very simply in a gown of dark cloth and a plain straw bonnet, the impression she at once made was more than favourable, and they received her with a kindness and courtesy that made her feel herself welcome. They were indeed of her own kind.
Sir Haco was one of the few men who, regarding constantly the reality, not the show of things, keep throughout their life, however long, great part of their youth, and all their childhood. Deeper far in his heart than any of the honours he had received, all unsought but none undeserved, lay the memory of a happy and reverential boyhood. Sprung from a peasant stock, his father was a man of 'high erected thought seated in a heart of courtesy.'
He was well matched with his wife, who, though born to a far higher social position in which simplicity is rarer, was, like him, true and humble and strong. They had one daughter, who grew up only to die: the moment they saw Kirsty, their hearts went out to her.
For there was in Kirsty that unassumed, unconscious dignity, that simple propriety, that naturalness of a carriage neither trammeled nor warped by thought of self, which at once awakes confidence and regard; while her sweet, unaffected 'book English,' in which appeared no attempt at speaking like a fine lady, no disastrous endeavour to avoid her country's utterance, revealed at once her genuine cultivation. Sir Haco said afterward that when she spoke Scotch it was good and thorough, and when she spoke English it was Wordsworthian.
Listening to her first words, and reminded of the solemn sententious way in which sergeant Barclay used to express himself, his face rose clear in his mind's eye, he saw it as it were reflected in his daughter's, and broke out with—
'Eh, lassie, but ye're like yer father!'
'Ye min' upon him, sir?' rejoined Kirsty, with her perfect smile.
'Min' upon him! Naebody worth his min'in upo' could ever forget him! Sit ye doon, and tell's a' aboot him!'
Kirsty did as she was told. She began at the beginning, and explained first, what doubtless sir Haco knew at least something of before, the relation between her father and colonel Gordon, whence his family as well as himself had always felt it their business to look after the young laird. Then she told how, after a long interval, during which they could do nothing, a sad opportunity had at length been given them of at least attempting to serve him; and it was for aid in this attempt that she now sought sir Haco, who could direct her toward the procuring of certain information.
'And what sort of information do you think I can give or get for you, Miss Barclay?' asked sir Haco.
'I'll explain the thing to ye, sir, in as feow words as I can,' answered Kirsty, dropping her English. 'The young laird has taen 't intil his heid that he didna carry himsel like a man i' the siege, and it's grown to be in him what they ca' a fixt idea. He was left, ye see, sir, a' himlane i' the beleaguert toon, and I fancy the suddent waukin and the discovery that he was there his lee lane, jist pat him beside himsel.'
Here she told the whole story, as they had gathered it from Francis, mingling it with some elucidatory suggestions of her own, and having ended her narration, went on thus:—
'Ye see, sir, and my leddy, he was little better nor a laddie, and fowk 'at sair needs company, like Francie, misses company ower sair. Men's no able—some men, my leddy—to tak coonsel wi' their ain herts, as women whiles learns to du. And sae, whan he cam oot o' the fricht, he was ower sair upon himsel for bein i' the fricht. For it seems to me there's no shame in bein frichtit, sae lang as ye dinna serve and obey the fricht, but trust in him 'at sees, and du what ye hae to du. Naebody 'at kenned Francie as I did, cud ever believe he faun' mair fear in 's hert nor was lawfu' and rizzonable—sae lang, that is, as he was in his richt min': ayont that nane but his maker can jeedge him. I dinna mean Francie was a pettern, but, sir, he was no cooard—and that I ken, for I 'm no cooard mysel, please God to keep me as he 's made me. But the laddie—the man, I suld say—he's no to be persuaudit oot o' the fancy o' his ain cooardice; and I dinna believe he'll ever win oot o' 't wantin the testimony o' his fellow-officers, wha o' them may be left to grant the same. And I canna but think, gien ye'll excuse me, sir, that, for his father's sake, it wud be a gracious ac' to tak him intil the queen's service, and lat him baud on fechtin for 's country, whaurever it may please her mejesty to want him.—Oot whaur he was afore micht be best for him—I dinna ken. It wad be to put his country's seal upo' their word.'
'Surely, Miss Barclay, you wouldn't set the poor lad in the forefront of danger again!' said lady Macintosh.
'I wud that, my lady! I canna but think the airmy, savin for this misadventur—gien there be ony sic thing as misadventur—hed a fair chance o' makin a man o' Francie; and whiles I canna help doobtin gien onything less 'ill ever restore him til himsel but restorin him til 's former position. It wud ony gait gie him the best chance o' shawin til himsel 'at there wasna a hair o' the cooard upon him.'
'But,' said sir Haco, 'would her majesty be justified in taking the risk involved? Would it not be to peril many for a doubtful good to one?'
Kirsty was silent for a moment, with downcast eyes.
I'm answert, sir—as to that p'int,' she said, looking up.
'For my part,' said lady Macintosh, 'I can't help thinking that the love of a good woman like yourself must do more for the poor fellow than the approval of all the soldiers in the world.—Pardon me, Haco.'
'Indeed, my lady, you're perfectly right!' returned her husband with a smile.
But lady Macintosh hardly heard him, so startled, almost so frightened was she at the indignation instantly on Kirsty's countenance.
'Putna things intil ony held, my leddy, 'at the hert wud never put there. It wad be an ill fulfillin o' my father's duty til his auld colonel, no to say his auld frien, to coontenance sic a notion!'
'I beg your pardon, Miss Barclay; I was wrong to venture the remark. But may I say in excuse, that it is not unnatural to imagine a young woman, doing so much for a young man, just a little bit in love with him?'
'I wud fain hae yer leddyship un'erstaun,' returned Kirsty, 'that my father, my mother, and mysel, we're jist are and nae mair. No are o' 's hes a wuss that disna belang to a' three. The langest I can min', it's been my ae ambition to help my father and mother to du what they wantit. I never desirit merriage, my leddy, and gien I did, it wudna be wi' sic as Francie Gordon, weel as I lo'e him, for we war bairnies, and laddie and lassie thegither: I wudna hae a man it was for me to fin' faut wi'! 'Deed, mem, what fowk ca's love, hes neither airt nor pairt i' this metter!'
Not to believe the honest glow in Kirsty's face, and the clear confident assertion of her eyes, would have shown a poor creature in whom the faculty of belief was undeveloped.
Sir Haco and lady Macintosh insisted on Kirsty's taking up her abode with them while she was in Edinburgh; and Kirsty, partly in the hope of expediting the object of her mission thereby, and partly because her heart was drawn to her new friends, gladly consented. Before a week was over, like understanding like, her hostess felt as if she were a daughter until now long waiting for her somewhere in the infinite.
The self-same morning, sir Haco sat down to his study-table, and began writing to every officer alive who had served with Francis Gordon, requesting to know his feeling, and that of the regiment about him. Within three days he received the first of the answers, which kept dropping in for the next six months. They all described Gordon as rather a scatterbrain, as not the less a favourite with officers and men, and as always showing the courage of a man, or rather of a boy, seeing he not unfrequently acted with a reprehensible recklessness that smacked a little of display.
'That's Francie himsel!' cried Kirsty, with the tears in her eyes, when her host read, to this effect, the first result of his inquiry.
Within a fortnight he received also, from one high in office, the assurance that, if Mr. Gordon, on his recovery, wished to enter her majesty's service, he should have his commission.
While her husband was thus kindly occupied, lady Macintosh was showing Kirsty every loving attention she could think of, and, in taking her about Edinburgh and its neighbourhood, found that the country girl knew far more of the history of Scotland than she did herself.
She would gladly have made her acquainted with some of her friends, but Kirsty shrank from the proposal: she could not forget how her hostess had herself misinterpreted the interest she took in Francie Gordon. As soon as she felt that she could do so without seeming ungrateful, she bade her new friends farewell, and hastened home, carrying with her copies of the answers which sir Haco had up to that time received.
When she arrived it was with such a glad heart that, at sight of Francis in her father's Sunday clothes, she laughed so merrily that her mother said 'The lassie maun be fey!' Haggard as he looked, the old twinkle awoke in his eye responsive to her joyous amusement; and David, coming in the next moment from putting up the gray mare with which he had met the coach to bring Kirsty home, saw them all three laughing in such an abandonment of mirth as, though unaware of the immediate motive, he could not help joining.
The same evening Kirsty went to the castle, and Mrs. Bremner needed no persuasion to find the suit which the young laird had left in his room, and give it to her to carry to its owner; so that, when he woke the next morning, Francis saw the gray garments lying by his bed-side in place of David's black, and felt the better for the sight.
The letters Kirsty had brought, working along, with returning health, and the surrounding love and sympathy most potent of all, speedily dispelled his yet lingering delusion. It had occasionally returned in force while Kirsty was away, but now it left him altogether.
A GREAT GULF
It was now midsummer, and Francis Gordon was well, though thin and looking rather delicate. Kirsty and he had walked together to the top of the Horn, and there sat, in the heart of old memories. The sun was clouded above; the boggy basin lay dark below, with its rim of heathery hills not yet in bloom, and its bottom of peaty marsh, green and black, with here and there a shining spot; the growing crops of the far-off farms on the other side but little affected the general impression the view gave of a waste world; yet the wide expanse of heaven and earth lifted the heart of Kirsty with an indescribable sense of presence, purpose, promise. For was it not the country on which, fresh from God, she first opened the eyes of this life, the visible region in which all her efforts had gone forth, in which all the food of her growth had been gathered, in which all her joys had come to her, in which all her loves had had their scope, the place whence by and by she would go away to find her brother with the bonny man!
Francis saw without heeding. His heart was not uplifted. His earthly future, a future of his own imagining, drew him.
'This winna du ony langer, Kirsty!' he said at length. 'The accusin angel 'll be upo' me again or I ken! I maunna be idle 'cause I'm happy ance mair—thanks to you, Kirsty! Little did I think ever to raise my heid again! But noo I maun be at my wark! I'm fit eneuch!'
'I'm richt glaid to hear't!' answered Kirsty. 'I was jist thinkin lang for a word o' the sort frae ye, Francie. I didna want to be the first to speyk o' 't.'
'And I was just thinkin lang to hear ye speyk o' 't!' returned Francis. 'I wantit to du't as the thing ye wad hae o' me!'
'Even than, Francie, ye wudna, it seems, hae been doin 't to please me, and that pleases me weel! I wud be nane pleast to think ye duin 't for me! It wud gie me a sair hert, Francie!'
'What for that, Kirsty?'
''Cause it wud shaw ye no a man yet! A man's a man 'at dis what's richt, what's pleasin to the verra hert o' richt. Ye'll please me best by no wantin to please me; and ye'll please God best by duin what he's putten intil yer hert as the richt thing, and the bonny thing, and the true thing, though ye suld dee i' the duin o' 't.—Tell me what ye're thinkin o' duin.'
'What but gaeing efter this new commission they hae promised me? There's aye a guid chance o' fechtin upo' the borders—the frontiers, as they ca' them!'
Kirsty sat silent. She had been thinking much of what Francis ought to do, and had changed her mind on the point since the time when she talked about him with sir Haco.
'Isna that what ye wud hae me du, Kirsty?' he said, when he found she continued silent. 'A body's no a fule for wantin guid advice!'
'No, that's true eneuch! What for wad ye want to gang fechtin?'
'To shaw the warl' I'm nane o' what my mither ca'd me.'
'And shawn that, hoo muckle the better man wud ye be for 't? Min' ye it's ae thing to be, and anither to shaw. Be ye maun; shaw ye needna.'
'I dinna ken; I micht be growin better a' the time!'
'And ye micht be growin waur.—What the better wud ony neebour be for ye gane fechtin? Wudna it be a' for yersel? Is there naething gien intil yer ban' to du—naething nearer hame nor that? Surely o' twa things, are near and are far, the near comes first!'
'I dinna ken. I thoucht ye wantit me to gang!'
'Ay, raither nor bide at hame duin naething; but michtna there be something better to du?'
'I dinna ken. I thoucht to please ye, Kirsty, but it seems naething wull!'
'Ay; that's whaur the mischief lies. Ye thoucht to please me!'
'I did think to please you, Kirsty! I thoucht, ance dune weel afore the warl as my father did, I micht hae the face to come hame to you, and say—"Kirsty, wull ye hae me?"'
'Aye the same auld Francie!' said Kirsty, with a deep sigh.
'I tell ye, Francie, i' the name o' God, I'll never hae ye on nae sic terms!—Suppose I was to merry some-body whan ye was awa pruvin to yersel, and a' the lave 'at never misdoobted ye, 'at ye was a brave man—what wud ye du whan ye cam hame?'
'Naething o' mortal guid! Tak to the drink, maybe.'
'Ye tell me that! and ye think, wi' my een open to ken 'at ye say true, I wud merry ye?—a man like you! Eh, Francie, Francie! ye're no worth my takin' and ye're no like to be worth the takin o' ony honest wuman!—Can ye possibly imegine a wuman merryin a man 'at she kenned wud drive her to coontless petitions to be hauden ohn despisit him? Ye mak my hert unco sair, Francie! I hae dune my best wi' ye, and the en' o' 't is, 'at ye're no worth naething!'
'For the life o' me, Kirsty, I dinna ken what ye're drivin at, or what ye wud hae o' me! I canna but think ye're usin me as ye wudna like to be used yersel!'
''Deed I wud not like it gien I was o' your breed, Francie! Man, did ye never ance i' yer life think what ye hed to du—what was gien ye to du—what it was yer duty to du?'
'No sae aften, doobtless, as I oucht. But I'm ready to hear ye tell me my duty; I'm no past reasonin wi'!'
'Did ye never hear 'at ye're to lo'e yer neebour as yersel?'
'I'm duin that wi' a' my hert, Kirsty—and that ye ken as weel as I du mysel!'
'Ye mean me, Francie! And ye ca' that lo'in me, to wull me merry a man 'at 's no a man ava! But it's nae me 'at 's yer neebour, Francie!'
'Wha is my neebour, Kirsty?'
'The queston's been speirt afore—and answert.'
'And what's the answer til't?'
''At yer neebour's jist whaever lies neist ye i' need o' yer help. Gien ye read the tale o' the guid Sameritan wi' ony sort o' gumption, that's what ye'll read intil 't and noucht else. The man or wuman ye can help, ye hae to be neebour til.'
'I want to help you.'
'Ye canna help me. I'm in no need o' yer help. And the queston's no whar's the man I micht help, but whaur's the man I maun help. I wantit to be your neebour, but I cudna win at ye for the thieves; ye wad stick to them, and they wudna lat me du naething.'
'What thieves, i' the name o' common sense, Kirsty?'
'Love o' yer ain gait, and love o' makin a show, and want o' care for what's richt. Aih, Francie, I doobt something a heap waur 'll hae to come upo' ye! A' my labour's lost, and I dearly grudge it—no the labour, but the loss o' 't! I grudge that sair.'
'Kirsty, i' the name o' God, wha is my neebour?'
'Yer ain mither.'
'My ain mither!—her oot o' a' the warl'?—I never cam upo' spark o' rizzon intil her!'
'Michtna she be that are, oot o' a' the warl', ye never shawed spark o' rizzon til?'
'There's nae place in her for reason to gang til!'
'Ye never tried her wi' 't! Ye wud arguy wi' her mair nor plenty, but did ye ever shaw her rizzon i' yer behaviour?'
'Weel ye are turnin agen me—you 'at 's saved my life frae her! Diana I tell you hoo, whan I wan hame at last and gaed til her, for she was aye guid to me when I wasna weel, she fell oot upo' me like a verra deevil, ragin and ca'in me ill names, 'at I jist ran frae the hoose— and ye ken whaur ye faun' me! Gien it hadna been for you, I wud have been deid: I was waur nor deid a'ready! What w'y can I be neebour to her! It wud be naething but cat and dog atween's frae mornin to nicht!'
'Ae body canna be cat and dog baith! And the dog's as ill's the cat— whiles waur!'
'Ony dog wud yowl gien ye threw a kettle o' bilin watter ower him!'
'Did she that til ye?'
'She mintit at it. I ran frae her. She bed the toddy-kettle in her ban', and she splasht it in her ain face tryin to fling't at me.'
'Maybe she didna ken ye!'
'She kenned me weel eneuch. She ca'd me by my ain as weel 's ither names.'
'Ye're jist croonin my arguyment, Francie! Yer mither's jist perishin o' drink! She drinks and drinks, and, by what I hear, cares for noucht else. A' 's upo' the ro'd to ruin in her and aboot her. She hasna the brains noo, gien ever she bed them, to guide hersel. Is Satan to grip her 'cause ye winna be neebour til her and hand him aff o' her? I ken ye're a guid son sae far as lat her du as she likes and tak 'maist a' the siller, but that's what greases the exle o' the cairt the deevil's gotten her intil! I ken weel she hesna been muckle o' a mither til ye, but ye're her son whan a' 's said. And there can be naething ye're callt upon to du, sae lang as she's i' the grup o' the enemy, but rugg her oot o' 't. Gien ye dinna that, ye'll never be oot o' 's grup yersel. Ye come oot thegither, or ye bide thegither.'
Gordon sat speechless.
'It's impossible!' he said at length.
'Francie,' rejoined Kirsty, very quietly and solemnly, 'ye're yer mother's keeper; ye're her neist neebour: are ye gauin to du yer duty by her, or are ye not?' 'I canna; I daurna; I'm a cooard afore her.'
'Gien ye lat her gang on to disgrace yer father, no to say yersel—and that by means o' what's yours and no hers, I'll say mysel 'at ye're a cooard.'
'Come hame wi' me and tak my pairt, and I'll promise ye to du my best.'
'Ye maun tak yer ain pairt; and ye maun tak her pairt tu against hersel.'
'It's no to be thoucht o', Kirsty!'
'I canna my lane. I winna try 't. It wud be waur nor useless.'
Kirsty rose, turning her face homeward. Gordon sprang to his feet. She was already three yards from him.
'Kirsty! Kirsty!' he cried, going after her.
She went straight for home, never showing by turn of head, by hesitation of step, or by change of carriage, that she heard his voice or his feet behind her.
When they had thus gone two or three hundred yards, he quickened his pace, and laid his hand on her arm.
She stopped and faced him. He dropped his hand, grew yet whiter, and said not a word. She walked on again. Like one in a dream he followed, his head hanging, his eyes on the heather. She went on faster. He was falling behind her, but did not know it. Down and down the hill he followed, and only at the earth-house lifted his head: she was nearly over the opposite brae! He had let her go! He might yet have overtaken her, but he knew that he had lost her.
He had no home, no refuge! Then first, not when alone in the beleaguered city, he knew desolation. He had never knocked at the door of heaven, and earth had closed hers! An angel who needed no flaming sword to make her awful, held the gate of his lost paradise against him. None but she could open to him, and he knew that, like God himself, Kirsty was inexorable. Left alone with that last terrible look from the eyes of the one being he loved, he threw himself in despair on the ground. True love is an awful thing, not to the untrue only, but sometimes to the growing-true, for to everything that can be burned it is a consuming fire. Never more, it seemed, would those eyes look in at his soul's window without that sad, indignant repudiation in them! He rose, and crept into the earth-house.
Kirsty lost herself in prayer as she went. 'Lord, I hae dune a' I can!' she said. 'Until thou hast dune something by thysel, I can do naething mair. He's i' thy han's still, I praise thee, though he's oot o' mine! Lord, gien I hae dune him ony ill, forgie me; a puir human body canna ken aye the best! Dinna lat him suffer for my ignorance, whether I be to blame for 't or no. I will try to do whatever thou makest plain to me.'
By the time she reached home she was calm. Her mother saw and respected her solemn mood, gave her a mother's look, and said nothing: she knew that Kirsty, lost in her own thoughts, was in good company.
What was passing in the soul of Francis Gordon, I can only indicate, I cannot show. The most mysterious of all vital movements, a generation, a transition, was there—how initiated, God only knows. Francis knew neither whence it came nor whither it went. He was being re-born from above. The change was in himself; the birth was that of his will. It was his own highest action, therefore all God's. He was passing from death into life, and knew it no more than the babe knows that he is being born. The change was into a new state of being, of the very existence of which most men are incredulous, for it is beyond preconception, capable only of being experienced. Thorough as is the change, the man knows himself the same man, and yet would rather cease to be, than return to what he was. The unknown germ in him, the root of his being, yea, his very being itself, the holy thing which is his intrinsic substance, hitherto unknown to his consciousness, has begun to declare itself, and the worm is passing into the butterfly, the creeping thing into the Psyche. It is a change in which God is the potent presence, but which the man must will, or remain the gaoler who prisons in loathsomeness his own God-born self, and chokes the fountain of his own liberty.
Francis knew nothing of all this; he only felt he must knock at the door behind which Kirsty lived. Kirsty could not open the door to him, but there was one who could, and Francis could knock! 'God help me!' he cried, as he lay on his face to live, where once he had lain on his face to die. For the rising again is the sepulchre. The world itself is one vast sepulchre for the heavenly resurrection. We are all busy within the walls of our tomb burying our dead, that the corruptible may perish, and the incorruptible go free. Francis Gordon came out of that earth-house a risen man: his will was born. He climbed again to the spot where Kirsty and he had sat together, and there, with the vast clear heaven over his head, threw himself once more on his face, and lifted up his heart to the heart whence he came.
He had eaten nothing since the morning, and felt like one in a calm ethereal dream as he walked home to Weelset in the soft dusk of an evening that would never be night, but die into the day. No one saw him enter the house, no one met him on the ancient spiral stair, as, with apprehensive anticipation, he sought the drawing-room.
He had just set his foot on the little landing by its door when a wild scream came from the room. He flung the door open and darted in. His mother rushed into his arms, enveloped from foot to head in a cone of fire. She was making, in wild flight, for the stair, to reach which would have been death to her. Francis held her fast, but she struggled so wildly that he had actually to throw her on the floor ere he could do anything to deliver her. Then he flung on her the rug, the table-cover, his coat, and one of the window-curtains, tearing it fiercely from the rings. Having got all these close around her, he rang the bell with an alarum-peal, but had to ring three times, for service in that house was deadened by frequent fury of summons. Two of the maids—there was no manservant in the house now—laid their mistress on a mattress, and carried her to her room. Gordon's hands and arms were so severely burned that he could do nothing beyond directing: he thought he had never felt pain before.
The doctor was sent for, and came speedily. Having examined them, he said Mrs. Gordon's injuries would have caused him no anxiety but for her habits: their consequences might be very serious, and every possible care must be taken of her.
Disabled as he was, Francis sat by her till the morning; and the night's nursing did far more for himself than for his mother. For, as he saw how she suffered, and interpreted her moans by what he had felt and was still feeling in his own hands and arms, a great pity awoke in him. What a lost life his mother's had been! Was this to be the end of it? The old kindness she had shown him in his childhood and youth, especially when he was in any bodily trouble, came back upon him, and a new love, gathering up in it all the intermittent love of days long gone by, sprang to life in his heart, and he saw that the one thing given him to do was to deliver his mother.