"But didn't Allister's father kill him?"
"No. He thought better of it, and didn't. He was very angry for a while, but he got over it in time. And Allister became a great man, and because of what he had done, he was called Allister MacLeod no more, but Sir Worm Wymble. And when he died," concluded Kirsty, "he was buried under the tomb in your father's church. And if you look close enough, you'll find a wimble carved on the stone, but I'm afraid it's worn out by this time."
Silence followed the close of Kirsty's tale. Wee Davie had taken no harm, for he was fast asleep with his head on her bosom. Allister was staring into the fire, fancying he saw the whorls of the wimble heating in it. Turkey was cutting at his stick with a blunt pocket-knife, and a silent whistle on his puckered lips. I was sorry the story was over, and was growing stupid under the reaction from its excitement. I was, however, meditating a strict search for the wimble carved on the knight's tomb. All at once came the sound of a latch lifted in vain, followed by a thundering at the outer door, which Kirsty had prudently locked. Allister, Turkey, and I started to our feet, Allister with a cry of dismay, Turkey grasping his stick.
"It's the kelpie!" cried Allister.
But the harsh voice of the old witch followed, something deadened by the intervening door.
"Kirsty! Kirsty!" it cried; "open the door directly."
"No, no, Kirsty!" I objected. "She'll shake wee Davie to bits, and haul Allister through the snow. She's afraid to touch me."
Turkey thrust the poker in the fire; but Kirsty snatched it out, threw it down, and boxed his ears, which rough proceeding he took with the pleasantest laugh in the world. Kirsty could do what she pleased, for she was no tyrant. She turned to us.
"Hush!" she said, hurriedly, with a twinkle in her eyes that showed the spirit of fun was predominant—"Hush!—Don't speak, wee Davie," she continued, as she rose and carried him from the kitchen into the passage between it and the outer door. He was scarcely awake.
Now, in that passage, which was wide, and indeed more like a hall in proportion to the cottage, had stood on its end from time immemorial a huge barrel, which Kirsty, with some housewifely intent or other, had lately cleaned out. Setting Davie down, she and Turkey lifted first me and popped me into it, and then Allister, for we caught the design at once. Finally she took up wee Davie, and telling him to lie as still as a mouse, dropped him into our arms. I happened to find the open bung-hole near my eye, and peeped out. The knocking continued.
"Wait a bit, Mrs. Mitchell," screamed Kirsty; "wait till I get my potatoes off the fire."
As she spoke, she took the great bow-pot in one hand and carried it to the door, to pour away the water. When she unlocked and opened the door, I saw through the bung-hole a lovely sight; for the moon was shining, and the snow was falling thick. In the midst of it stood Mrs. Mitchell, one mass of whiteness. She would have rushed in, but Kirsty's advance with the pot made her give way, and from behind Kirsty Turkey slipped out and round the corner without being seen. There he stood watching, but busy at the same time kneading snowballs.
"And what may you please to want to-night, Mrs. Mitchell?" said Kirsty, with great civility.
"What should I want but my poor children? They ought to have been in bed an hour ago. Really, Kirsty, you ought to have more sense at your years than to encourage any such goings on."
"At my years!" returned Kirsty, and was about to give a sharp retort, but checked herself, saying, "Aren't they in bed then, Mrs. Mitchell?"
"You know well enough they are not."
"Poor things! I would recommend you to put them to bed at once."
"So I will. Where are they?"
"Find them yourself, Mrs. Mitchell. You had better ask a civil tongue to help you. I'm not going to do it."
They were standing just inside the door. Mrs. Mitchell advanced. I trembled. It seemed impossible she should not see me as well as I saw her. I had a vague impression that by looking at her I should draw her eyes upon me; but I could not withdraw mine from the bung-hole. I was fascinated; and the nearer she came, the less could I keep from watching her. When she turned into the kitchen, it was a great relief; but it did not last long, for she came out again in a moment, searching like a hound. She was taller than Kirsty, and by standing on her tiptoes could have looked right down into the barrel. She was approaching it with that intent—those eyes were about to overshadow us with their baleful light. Already her apron hid all other vision from my one eye, when a whizz, a dull blow, and a shriek from Mrs. Mitchell came to my ears together. The next moment, the field of my vision was open, and I saw Mrs. Mitchell holding her head with both hands, and the face of Turkey grinning round the corner of the open door. Evidently he wanted to entice her to follow him; but she had been too much astonished by the snowball in the back of her neck even to look in the direction whence the blow had come. So Turkey stepped out, and was just poising himself in the delivery of a second missile, when she turned sharp round.
The snowball missed her, and came with a great bang against the barrel. Wee Davie gave a cry of alarm, but there was no danger now, for Mrs. Mitchell was off after Turkey. In a moment, Kirsty lowered the barrel on its side, and we all crept out. I had wee Davie on my back instantly, while Kirsty caught up Allister, and we were off for the manse. As soon as we were out of the yard, however, we met Turkey, breathless. He had given Mrs. Mitchell the slip, and left her searching the barn for him. He took Allister from Kirsty, and we sped away, for it was all downhill now. When Mrs. Mitchell got back to the farmhouse, Kirsty was busy as if nothing had happened, and when, after a fruitless search, she returned to the manse, we were all snug in bed, with the door locked. After what had passed about the school, Mrs. Mitchell did not dare make any disturbance.
From that night she always went by the name of the Kelpie.
In the summer we all slept in a large room in the wide sloping roof. It had a dormer window, at no great distance above the eaves. One day there was something doing about the ivy, which covered all the gable and half the front of the house, and the ladder they had been using was left leaning against the back. It reached a little above the eaves, right under the dormer window. That night I could not sleep, as was not unfrequently the case with me. On such occasions I used to go wandering about the upper part of the house. I believe the servants thought I walked in my sleep, but it was not so, for I always knew what I was about well enough. I do not remember whether this began after that dreadful night when I woke in the barn, but I do think the enjoyment it gave me was rooted in the starry loneliness in which I had then found myself. I wonder if I can explain my feelings. The pleasure arose from a sort of sense of protected danger. On that memorable night, I had been as it were naked to all the silence, alone in the vast universe, which kept looking at me full of something it knew but would not speak. Now, when wandering about sleepless, I could gaze as from a nest of safety out upon the beautiful fear. From window to window I would go in the middle of the night, now staring into a blank darkness out of which came, the only signs of its being, the raindrops that bespattered or the hailstones that berattled the panes; now gazing into the deeps of the blue vault, gold-bespangled with its worlds; or, again, into the mysteries of soft clouds, all gathered into an opal tent by the centre-clasp of the moon, thinking out her light over its shining and shadowy folds.
This, I have said, was one of those nights on which I could not sleep. It was the summer after the winter-story of the kelpie, I believe; but the past is confused, and its chronology worthless, to the continuous now of childhood. The night was hot; my little brothers were sleeping loud, as wee Davie called snoring; and a great moth had got within my curtains somewhere, and kept on fluttering and whirring. I got up, and went to the window. It was such a night! The moon was full, but rather low, and looked just as if she were thinking—"Nobody is heeding me: I may as well go to bed." All the top of the sky was covered with mackerel-backed clouds, lying like milky ripples on a blue sea, and through them the stars shot, here and there, sharp little rays like sparkling diamonds. There was no awfulness about it, as on the night when the gulfy sky stood over me, flashing with the heavenly host, and nothing was between me and the farthest world. The clouds were like the veil that hid the terrible light in the Holy of Holies—a curtain of God's love, to dim with loveliness the grandeur of their own being, and make his children able to bear it. My eye fell upon the top rounds of the ladder, which rose above the edge of the roof like an invitation. I opened the window, crept through, and, holding on by the ledge, let myself down over the slates, feeling with my feet for the top of the ladder. In a moment I was upon it. Down I went, and oh, how tender to my bare feet was the cool grass on which I alighted! I looked up. The dark housewall rose above me. I could ascend again when I pleased. There was no hurry. I would walk about a little. I would put my place of refuge yet a little farther off, nibble at the danger, as it were—a danger which existed only in my imagination. I went outside the high holly hedge, and the house was hidden. A grassy field was before me, and just beyond the field rose the farm buildings. Why should not I run across and wake Turkey? I was off like a shot, the expectation of a companion in my delight overcoming all the remnants of lingering apprehension. I knew there was only one bolt, and that a manageable one, between me and Turkey, for he slept in a little wooden chamber partitioned off from a loft in the barn, to which he had to climb a ladder. The only fearful part was the crossing of the barn-floor. But I was man enough for that. I reached and crossed the yard in safety, searched for and found the key of the barn, which was always left in a hole in the wall by the door,—turned it in the lock, and crossed the floor as fast as the darkness would allow me. With outstretched groping hands I found the ladder, ascended, and stood by Turkey's bed.
"Turkey! Turkey! wake up," I cried. "It's such a beautiful night! It's a shame to lie sleeping that way."
Turkey's answer was immediate. He was wide awake and out of bed with all his wits by him in a moment.
"Sh! sh!" he said, "or you'll wake Oscar."
Oscar was a colley (sheep dog) which slept in a kennel in the cornyard. He was not much of a watch-dog, for there was no great occasion for watching, and he knew it, and slept like a human child; but he was the most knowing of dogs. Turkey was proceeding to dress.
"Never mind your clothes, Turkey," I said. "There's nobody up."
Willing enough to spare himself trouble, Turkey followed me in his shirt. But once we were out in the cornyard, instead of finding contentment in the sky and the moon, as I did, he wanted to know what we were going to do.
"It's not a bad sort of night," he said; "what shall we do with it?"
He was always wanting to do something.
"Oh, nothing," I answered; "only look about us a bit."
"You didn't hear robbers, did you?" he asked.
"Oh dear, no! I couldn't sleep, and got down the ladder, and came to wake you—that's all."
"Let's have a walk, then," he said.
Now that I had Turkey, there was scarcely more terror in the night than in the day. I consented at once. That we had no shoes on was not of the least consequence to Scotch boys. I often, and Turkey always, went barefooted in summer.
As we left the barn, Turkey had caught up his little whip. He was never to be seen without either that or his club, as we called the stick he carried when he was herding the cattle. Finding him thus armed, I begged him to give me his club. He ran and fetched it, and, thus equipped, we set out for nowhere in the middle of the night. My fancy was full of fragmentary notions of adventure, in which shadows from The Pilgrim's Progress predominated. I shouldered my club, trying to persuade my imagination that the unchristian weapon had been won from some pagan giant, and therefore was not unfittingly carried. But Turkey was far better armed with his lash of wire than I was with the club. His little whip was like that fearful weapon called the morning star in the hand of some stalwart knight.
We took our way towards the nearest hills, thinking little of where we went so that we were in motion. I guess that the story I have just related must, notwithstanding his unbelief, have been working in Turkey's brain that night, for after we had walked for a mile or more along the road, and had arrived at the foot of a wooded hill, well known to all the children of the neighbourhood for its bilberries, he turned into the hollow of a broken track, which lost itself in a field as yet only half-redeemed from the moorland. It was plain to me now that Turkey had some goal or other in his view; but I followed his leading, and asked no questions. All at once he stopped, and said, pointing a few yards in front of him:
I did look, but the moon was behind the hill, and the night was so dim that I had to keep looking for several moments ere I discovered that he was pointing to the dull gleam of dark water. Very horrible it seemed. I felt my flesh creep the instant I saw it. It lay in a hollow left by the digging out of peats, drained thither from the surrounding bog. My heart sank with fear. The almost black glimmer of its surface was bad enough, but who could tell what lay in its unknown depth? But, as I gazed, almost paralysed, a huge dark figure rose up on the opposite side of the pool. For one moment the scepticism of Turkey seemed to fail him, for he cried out, "The kelpie! The kelpie!" and turned and ran.
I followed as fast as feet utterly unconscious of the ground they trod upon could bear me. We had not gone many yards before a great roar filled the silent air. That moment Turkey slackened his pace, and burst into a fit of laughter.
"It's nothing but Bogbonny's bull, Ranald!" he cried.
Kelpies were unknown creatures to Turkey, but a bull was no more than a dog or a sheep, or any other domestic animal. I, however, did not share his equanimity, and never slackened my pace till I got up with him.
"But he's rather ill-natured," he went on, the instant I joined him, "and we had better make for the hill."
Another roar was a fresh spur to our speed. We could not have been in better trim for running. But it was all uphill, and had it not been that the ground for some distance between us and the animal was boggy, so that he had to go round a good way, one of us at least would have been in evil case.
"He's caught sight of our shirts," said Turkey, panting as he ran, "and he wants to see what they are. But we'll be over the fence before he comes up with us. I wouldn't mind for myself; I could dodge him well enough; but he might go after you, Ranald."
What with fear and exertion I was unable to reply. Another bellow sounded nearer, and by and by we could hear the dull stroke of his hoofs on the soft ground as he galloped after us. But the fence of dry stones, and the larch wood within it, were close at hand.
"Over with you, Ranald!" cried Turkey, as if with his last breath; and turned at bay, for the brute was close behind him.
But I was so spent, I could not climb the wall; and when I saw Turkey turn and face the bull, I turned too. We were now in the shadow of the hill, but I could just see Turkey lift his arm. A short sharp hiss, and a roar followed. The bull tossed his head as in pain, left Turkey, and came towards me. He could not charge at any great speed, for the ground was steep and uneven. I, too, had kept hold of my weapon; and although I was dreadfully frightened, I felt my courage rise at Turkey's success, and lifted my club in the hope that it might prove as good at need as Turkey's whip. It was well for me, however, that Turkey was too quick for the bull. He got between him and me, and a second stinging cut from the brass wire drew a second roar from his throat, and no doubt a second red streamlet from his nose, while my club descended on one of his horns with a bang which jarred my arm to the elbow, and sent the weapon flying over the fence. The animal turned tail for a moment—long enough to place us, enlivened by our success, on the other side of the wall, where we crouched so that he could not see us. Turkey, however, kept looking up at the line of the wall against the sky; and as he looked, over came the nose of the bull, within a yard of his head. Hiss went the little whip, and bellow went the bull.
"Get up among the trees, Ranald, for fear he come over," said Turkey, in a whisper.
I obeyed. But as he could see nothing of his foes, the animal had had enough of it, and we heard no more of him.
After a while, Turkey left his lair and joined me. We rested for a little, and would then have clambered to the top of the hill, but we gave up the attempt as awkward after getting into a furze bush. In our condition, it was too dark. I began to grow sleepy, also, and thought I should like to exchange the hillside for my bed. Turkey made no objection, so we trudged home again; not without sundry starts and quick glances to make sure that the bull was neither after us on the road, nor watching us from behind this bush or that hillock. Turkey never left me till he saw me safe up the ladder; nay, after I was in bed, I spied his face peeping in at the window from the topmost round of it. By this time the east had begun to begin to glow, as Allister, who was painfully exact, would have said; but I was fairly tired now, and, falling asleep at once, never woke until Mrs. Mitchell pulled the clothes off me, an indignity which I keenly felt, but did not yet know how to render impossible for the future.
At that time there were a good many beggars going about the country, who lived upon the alms of the charitable. Among these were some half-witted persons, who, although not to be relied upon, were seldom to any extent mischievous. We were not much afraid of them, for the home-neighbourhood is a charmed spot round which has been drawn a magic circle of safety, and we seldom roamed far beyond it. There was, however, one occasional visitor of this class, of whom we stood in some degree of awe. He was commonly styled Foolish Willie. His approach to the manse was always announced by a wailful strain upon the bagpipes, a set of which he had inherited from his father, who had been piper to some Highland nobleman: at least so it was said. Willie never went without his pipes, and was more attached to them than to any living creature. He played them well, too, though in what corner he kept the amount of intellect necessary to the mastery of them was a puzzle. The probability seemed that his wits had not decayed until after he had become in a measure proficient in the use of the chanter, as they call that pipe by means of whose perforations the notes are regulated. However this may be, Willie could certainly play the pipes, and was a great favourite because of it—with children especially, notwithstanding the mixture of fear which his presence always occasioned them. Whether it was from our Highland blood or from Kirsty's stories, I do not know, but we were always delighted when the far-off sound of his pipes reached us: little Davie would dance and shout with glee. Even the Kelpie, Mrs. Mitchell that is, was benignantly inclined towards Wandering Willie, as some people called him after the old song; so much so that Turkey, who always tried to account for things, declared his conviction that Willie must be Mrs. Mitchell's brother, only she was ashamed and wouldn't own him. I do not believe he had the smallest atom of corroboration for the conjecture, which therefore was bold and worthy of the inventor. One thing we all knew, that she would ostentatiously fill the canvas bag which he carried by his side, with any broken scraps she could gather, would give him as much milk to drink as he pleased, and would speak kind, almost coaxing, words to the poor natural—words which sounded the stranger in our ears, that they were quite unused to like sounds from the lips of the Kelpie.
It is impossible to describe Willie's dress: the agglomeration of ill-supplied necessity and superfluous whim was never exceeded. His pleasure was to pin on his person whatever gay-coloured cotton handkerchiefs he could get hold of; so that, with one of these behind and one before, spread out across back and chest, he always looked like an ancient herald come with a message from knight or nobleman. So incongruous was his costume that I could never tell whether kilt or trousers was the original foundation upon which it had been constructed. To his tatters add the bits of old ribbon, list, and coloured rag which he attached to his pipes wherever there was room, and you will see that he looked all flags and pennons—a moving grove of raggery, out of which came the screaming chant and drone of his instrument. When he danced, he was like a whirlwind that had caught up the contents of an old-clothes-shop. It is no wonder that he should have produced in our minds an indescribable mixture of awe and delight—awe, because no one could tell what he might do next, and delight because of his oddity, agility, and music. The first sensation was always a slight fear, which gradually wore off as we became anew accustomed to the strangeness of the apparition. Before the visit was over, wee Davie would be playing with the dangles of his pipes, and laying his ear to the bag out of which he thought the music came ready-made. And Willie was particularly fond of Davie, and tried to make himself agreeable to him after a hundred grotesque fashions. The awe, however, was constantly renewed in his absence, partly by the threats of the Kelpie, that, if so and so, she would give this one or that to Foolish Willie to take away with him—a threat which now fell almost powerless upon me, but still told upon Allister and Davie.
One day, in early summer—it was after I had begun to go to school—I came home as usual at five o'clock, to find the manse in great commotion. Wee Davie had disappeared. They were looking for him everywhere without avail. Already all the farmhouses had been thoroughly searched. An awful horror fell upon me, and the most frightful ideas of Davie's fate arose in my mind. I remember giving a howl of dismay the moment I heard of the catastrophe, for which I received a sound box on the ear from Mrs. Mitchell. I was too miserable, however, to show any active resentment, and only sat down upon the grass and cried. In a few minutes, my father, who had been away visiting some of his parishioners, rode up on his little black mare. Mrs. Mitchell hurried to meet him, wringing her hands, and crying—
"Oh, sir! oh, sir! Davie's away with Foolish Willie!"
This was the first I had heard of Willie in connection with the affair. My father turned pale, but kept perfectly quiet.
"Which way did he go?" he asked.
"How long is it ago?"
"About an hour and a half, I think," said Mrs. Mitchell.
To me the news was some relief. Now I could at least do something. I left the group, and hurried away to find Turkey. Except my father, I trusted more in Turkey than in anyone. I got on a rising ground near the manse, and looked all about until I found where the cattle were feeding that afternoon, and then darted off at full speed. They were at some distance from home, and I found that Turkey had heard nothing of the mishap. When I had succeeded in conveying the dreadful news, he shouldered his club, and said—
"The cows must look after themselves, Ranald!"
With the words he set off at a good swinging trot in the direction of a little rocky knoll in a hollow about half a mile away, which he knew to be a favourite haunt of Wandering Willie, as often as he came into the neighbourhood. On this knoll grew some stunted trees, gnarled and old, with very mossy stems. There was moss on the stones too, and between them grew lovely harebells, and at the foot of the knoll there were always in the season tall foxgloves, which had imparted a certain fear to the spot in my fancy. For there they call them Dead Man's Bells, and I thought there was a murdered man buried somewhere thereabout. I should not have liked to be there alone even in the broad daylight. But with Turkey I would have gone at any hour, even without the impulse which now urged me to follow him at my best speed. There was some marshy ground between us and the knoll, but we floundered through it; and then Turkey, who was some distance ahead of me, dropped into a walk, and began to reconnoitre the knoll with some caution. I soon got up with him.
"He's there, Ranald!" he said.
"I don't know about Davie; but Willie's there."
"How do you know?"
"I heard his bagpipes grunt. Perhaps Davie sat down upon them."
"Oh, run, Turkey!" I said, eagerly.
"No hurry," he returned. "If Willie has him, he won't hurt him, but it mayn't be easy to get him away. We must creep up and see what can be done."
Half dead as some of the trees were, there was foliage enough upon them to hide Willie, and Turkey hoped it would help to hide our approach. He went down on his hands and knees, and thus crept towards the knoll, skirting it partly, because a little way round it was steeper. I followed his example, and found I was his match at crawling in four-footed fashion. When we reached the steep side, we lay still and listened.
"He's there!" I cried in a whisper.
"Sh!" said Turkey; "I hear him. It's all right. We'll soon have a hold of him."
A weary whimper as of a child worn out with hopeless crying had reached our ears. Turkey immediately began to climb the side of the knoll.
"Stay where you are, Ranald," he said. "I can go up quieter than you."
I obeyed. Cautious as a deer-stalker, he ascended, still on his hands and knees. I strained my eyes after his every motion. But when he was near the top he lay perfectly quiet, and continued so till I could bear it no longer, and crept up after him. When I came behind him, he looked round angrily, and made a most emphatic contortion of his face; after which I dared not climb to a level with him, but lay trembling with expectation. The next moment I heard him call in a low whisper:
"Davie! Davie! wee Davie!"
But there was no reply. He called a little louder, evidently trying to reach by degrees just the pitch that would pierce to Davie's ears and not arrive at Wandering Willie's, who I rightly presumed was farther off. His tones grew louder and louder—but had not yet risen above a sharp whisper, when at length a small trembling voice cried "Turkey! Turkey!" in prolonged accents of mingled hope and pain. There was a sound in the bushes above me—a louder sound and a rush. Turkey sprang to his feet and vanished. I followed. Before I reached the top, there came a despairing cry from Davie, and a shout and a gabble from Willie. Then followed a louder shout and a louder gabble, mixed with a scream from the bagpipes, and an exulting laugh from Turkey. All this passed in the moment I spent in getting to the top, the last step of which was difficult. There was Davie alone in the thicket, Turkey scudding down the opposite slope with the bagpipes under his arm, and Wandering Willie pursuing him in a foaming fury. I caught Davie in my arms from where he lay sobbing and crying "Yanal! Yanal!" and stood for a moment not knowing what to do, but resolved to fight with teeth and nails before Willie should take him again. Meantime Turkey led Willie towards the deepest of the boggy ground, in which both were very soon floundering, only Turkey, being the lighter, had the advantage. When I saw that, I resolved to make for home. I got Davie on my back, and slid down the farther side to skirt the bog, for I knew I should stick in it with Davie's weight added to my own. I had not gone far, however, before a howl from Willie made me aware that he had caught sight of us; and looking round, I saw him turn from Turkey and come after us. Presently, however, he hesitated, then stopped, and began looking this way and that from the one to the other of his treasures, both in evil hands. Doubtless his indecision would have been very ludicrous to anyone who had not such a stake in the turn of the scale. As it was, he made up his mind far too soon, for he chose to follow Davie. I ran my best in the very strength of despair for some distance, but, seeing very soon that I had no chance, I set Davie down, telling him to keep behind me, and prepared, like the Knight of the Red Cross, "sad battle to darrayne". Willie came on in fury, his rags fluttering like ten scarecrows, and he waving his arms in the air, with wild gestures and grimaces and cries and curses. He was more terrible than the bull, and Turkey was behind him. I was just, like a negro, preparing to run my head into the pit of his stomach, and so upset him if I could, when I saw Turkey running towards us at full speed, blowing into the bagpipes as he ran. How he found breath for both I cannot understand. At length, he put the bag under his arm, and forth issued such a combination of screeching and grunting and howling, that Wandering Willie, in the full career of his rage, turned at the cries of his companion. Then came Turkey's masterpiece. He dashed the bagpipes on the ground, and commenced kicking them before him like a football, and the pipes cried out at every kick. If Turkey's first object had been their utter demolition, he could not have treated them more unmercifully. It was no time for gentle measures: my life hung in the balance. But this was more than Willie could bear. He turned from us, and once again pursued his pipes. When he had nearly overtaken him, Turkey gave them a last masterly kick, which sent them flying through the air, caught them as they fell, and again sought the bog, while I, hoisting Davie on my back, hurried, with more haste than speed, towards the manse.
What took place after I left them, I have only from Turkey's report, for I never looked behind me till I reached the little green before the house, where, setting Davie down, I threw myself on the grass. I remember nothing more till I came to myself in bed.
When Turkey reached the bog, and had got Wandering Willie well into the middle of it, he threw the bagpipes as far beyond him as he could, and then made his way out. Willie followed the pipes, took them, held them up between him and the sky as if appealing to heaven against the cruelty, then sat down in the middle of the bog upon a solitary hump, and cried like a child. Turkey stood and watched him, at first with feelings of triumph, which by slow degrees cooled down until at length they passed over into compassion, and he grew heartily sorry for the poor fellow, although there was no room for repentance. After Willie had cried for a while, he took the instrument as if it had been the mangled corpse of his son, and proceeded to examine it. Turkey declared his certainty that none of the pipes were broken; but when at length Willie put the mouthpiece to his lips, and began to blow into the bag, alas! it would hold no wind. He flung it from him in anger and cried again. Turkey left him crying in the middle of the bog. He said it was a pitiful sight.
It was long before Willie appeared in that part of the country again; but, about six months after, some neighbours who had been to a fair twenty miles off, told my father that they had seen him looking much as usual, and playing his pipes with more energy than ever. This was a great relief to my father, who could not bear the idea of the poor fellow's loneliness without his pipes, and had wanted very much to get them repaired for him. But ever after my father showed a great regard for Turkey. I heard him say once that, if he had had the chance, Turkey would have made a great general. That he should be judged capable of so much, was not surprising to me; yet he became in consequence a still greater being in my eyes.
When I set Davie down, and fell myself on the grass, there was nobody near. Everyone was engaged in a new search for Davie. My father had rode off at once without dismounting, to inquire at the neighbouring toll-gate whether Willie had passed through. It was not very likely, for such wanderers seldom take to the hard high road; but he could think of nothing else, and it was better to do something. Having failed there, he had returned and ridden along the country road which passed the farm towards the hills, leaving Willie and Davie far behind him. It was twilight before he returned. How long, therefore, I lay upon the grass, I do not know. When I came to myself, I found a sharp pain in my side. Turn how I would, there it was, and I could draw but a very short breath for it. I was in my father's bed, and there was no one in the room. I lay for some time in increasing pain; but in a little while my father came in, and then I felt that all was as it should be. Seeing me awake, he approached with an anxious face.
"Is Davie all right, father?" I asked.
"He is quite well, Ranald, my boy. How do you feel yourself now?"
"I've been asleep, father?"
"Yes; we found you on the grass, with Davie pulling at you and trying to wake you, crying, 'Yanal won't peak to me. Yanal! Yanal!' I am afraid you had a terrible run with him. Turkey, as you call him, told me all about it. He's a fine lad Turkey!"
"Indeed he is, father!" I cried with a gasp which betrayed my suffering.
"What is the matter, my boy?" he asked.
"Lift me up a little, please," I said, "I have such a pain in my side!"
"Ah!" he said, "it catches your breath. We must send for the old doctor."
The old doctor was a sort of demigod in the place. Everybody believed and trusted in him; and nobody could die in peace without him any more than without my father. I was delighted at the thought of being his patient. I think I see him now standing with his back to the fire, and taking his lancet from his pocket, while preparations were being made for bleeding me at the arm, which was a far commoner operation then than it is now.
That night I was delirious, and haunted with bagpipes. Wandering Willie was nowhere, but the atmosphere was full of bagpipes. It was an unremitting storm of bagpipes—silent, but assailing me bodily from all quarters—now small as motes in the sun, and hailing upon me; now large as feather-beds, and ready to bang us about, only they never touched us; now huge as Mount AEtna, and threatening to smother us beneath their ponderous bulk; for all the time I was toiling on with little Davie on my back. Next day I was a little better, but very weak, and it was many days before I was able to get out of bed. My father soon found that it would not do to let Mrs. Mitchell attend upon me, for I was always worse after she had been in the room for any time; so he got another woman to take Kirsty's duties, and set her to nurse me, after which illness became almost a luxury. With Kirsty near, nothing could go wrong. And the growing better was pure enjoyment.
Once, when Kirsty was absent for a little while, Mrs. Mitchell brought me some gruel.
"The gruel's not nice," I said.
"It's perfectly good, Ranald, and there's no merit in complaining when everybody's trying to make you as comfortable as they can," said the Kelpie.
"Let me taste it," said Kirsty, who that moment entered the room.—"It's not fit for anybody to eat," she said, and carried it away, Mrs. Mitchell following her with her nose horizontal.
Kirsty brought the basin back full of delicious gruel, well boiled, and supplemented with cream. I am sure the way in which she transformed that basin of gruel has been a lesson to me ever since as to the quality of the work I did. No boy or girl can have a much better lesson than—to do what must be done as well as it can be done. Everything, the commonest, well done, is something for the progress of the world; that is, lessens, if by the smallest hair's-breadth, the distance between it and God.
Oh, what a delight was that first glowing summer afternoon upon which I was carried out to the field where Turkey was herding the cattle! I could not yet walk. That very morning, as I was being dressed by Kirsty, I had insisted that I could walk quite well, and Kirsty had been over-persuaded into letting me try. Not feeling steady on my legs, I set off running, but tumbled on my knees by the first chair I came near. I was so light from the wasting of my illness, that Kirsty herself, little woman as she was, was able to carry me. I remember well how I saw everything double that day, and found it at first very amusing. Kirsty set me down on a plaid in the grass, and the next moment, Turkey, looking awfully big, and portentously healthy, stood by my side. I wish I might give the conversation in the dialect of my native country, for it loses much in translation; but I have promised, and I will keep my promise.
"Eh, Ranald!" said Turkey, "it's not yourself?"
"It's me, Turkey," I said, nearly crying with pleasure.
"Never mind, Ranald," he returned, as if consoling me in some disappointment; "we'll have rare fun yet."
"I'm frightened at the cows, Turkey. Don't let them come near me."
"No, that I won't," answered Turkey, brandishing his club to give me confidence, "I'll give it them, if they look at you from between their ugly horns."
"Turkey," I said, for I had often pondered the matter during my illness, "how did Hawkie behave while you were away with me—that day, you know?"
"She ate about half a rick of green corn," answered Turkey, coolly. "But she had the worst of it. They had to make a hole in her side, or she would have died. There she is off to the turnips!"
He was after her with shout and flourish. Hawkie heard and obeyed, turning round on her hind-legs with a sudden start, for she knew from his voice that he was in a dangerously energetic mood.
"You'll be all right again soon," he said, coming quietly back to me. Kirsty had gone to the farmhouse, leaving me with injunctions to Turkey concerning me.
"Oh yes, I'm nearly well now; only I can't walk yet."
"Will you come on my back?" he said.
When Kirsty returned to take me home, there was I following the cows on Turkey's back, riding him about wherever I chose; for my horse was obedient as only a dog, or a horse, or a servant from love can be. From that day I recovered very rapidly.
How all the boys and girls stared at me, as timidly, yet with a sense of importance derived from the distinction of having been so ill, I entered the parish school one morning, about ten o'clock! For as I said before, I had gone to school for some months before I was taken ill. It was a very different affair from Dame Shand's tyrannical little kingdom. Here were boys of all ages, and girls likewise, ruled over by an energetic young man, with a touch of genius, manifested chiefly in an enthusiasm for teaching. He had spoken to me kindly the first day I went, and had so secured my attachment that it never wavered, not even when, once, supposing me guilty of a certain breach of orders committed by my next neighbour, he called me up, and, with more severity than usual, ordered me to hold up my hand. The lash stung me dreadfully, but I was able to smile in his face notwithstanding. I could not have done that had I been guilty. He dropped his hand, already lifted for the second blow, and sent me back to my seat. I suppose either his heart interfered, or he saw that I was not in need of more punishment. The greatest good he did me, one for which I shall be ever grateful, was the rousing in me of a love for English literature, especially poetry. But I cannot linger upon this at present, tempting although it be. I have led a busy life in the world since, but it has been one of my greatest comforts when the work of the day was over—dry work if it had not been that I had it to do—to return to my books, and live in the company of those who were greater than myself, and had had a higher work in life than mine. The master used to say that a man was fit company for any man whom he could understand, and therefore I hope often that some day, in some future condition of existence, I may look upon the faces of Milton and Bacon and Shakspere, whose writings have given me so much strength and hope throughout my life here.
The moment he saw me, the master came up to me and took me by the hand, saying he was glad to see me able to come to school again.
"You must not try to do too much at first," he added.
This set me on my mettle, and I worked hard and with some success. But before the morning was over I grew very tired, and fell fast asleep with my head on the desk. I was informed afterwards that the master had interfered when one of my class-fellows was trying to wake me, and told him to let me sleep.
When one o'clock came, I was roused by the noise of dismissal for the two hours for dinner. I staggered out, still stupid with sleep, and whom should I find watching for me by the door-post but Turkey!
"Turkey!" I exclaimed; "you here!"
"Yes, Ranald," he said; "I've put the cows up for an hour or two, for it was very hot; and Kirsty said I might come and carry you home."
So saying he stooped before me, and took me on his strong back. As soon as I was well settled, he turned his head, and said:
"Ranald, I should like to go and have a look at my mother. Will you come? There's plenty of time."
"Yes, please, Turkey," I answered. "I've never seen your mother."
He set off at a slow easy trot, and bore me through street and lane until we arrived at a two-storey house, in the roof of which his mother lived. She was a widow, and had only Turkey. What a curious place her little garret was! The roof sloped down on one side to the very floor, and there was a little window in it, from which I could see away to the manse, a mile off, and far beyond it. Her bed stood in one corner, with a check curtain hung from a rafter in front of it. In another was a chest, which contained all their spare clothes, including Turkey's best garments, which he went home to put on every Sunday morning. In the little grate smouldered a fire of oak-bark, from which all the astringent virtue had been extracted in the pits at the lanyard, and which was given to the poor for nothing.
Turkey's mother was sitting near the little window, spinning. She was a spare, thin, sad-looking woman, with loving eyes and slow speech.
"Johnnie!" she exclaimed, "what brings you here? and who's this you've brought with you?"
Instead of stopping her work as she spoke, she made her wheel go faster than before; and I gazed with admiration at her deft fingering of the wool, from which the thread flowed in a continuous line, as if it had been something plastic, towards the revolving spool.
"It's Ranald Bannerman," said Turkey quietly. "I'm his horse. I'm taking him home from the school. This is the first time he's been there since he was ill."
Hearing this, she relaxed her labour, and the hooks which had been revolving so fast that they were invisible in a mist of motion, began to dawn into form, until at length they revealed their shape, and at last stood quite still. She rose, and said:
"Come, Master Ranald, and sit down. You'll be tired of riding such a rough horse as that."
"No, indeed," I said; "Turkey is not a rough horse; he's the best horse in the world."
"He always calls me Turkey, mother, because of my nose," said Turkey, laughing.
"And what brings you here?" asked his mother. "This is not on the road to the manse."
"I wanted to see if you were better, mother."
"But what becomes of the cows?"
"Oh! they're all safe enough. They know I'm here."
"Well, sit down and rest you both," she said, resuming her own place at the wheel. "I'm glad to see you, Johnnie, so be your work is not neglected. I must go on with mine."
Thereupon Turkey, who had stood waiting his mother's will, deposited me upon her bed, and sat down beside me.
"And how's your papa, the good man?" she said to me.
I told her he was quite well.
"All the better that you're restored from the grave, I don't doubt," she said.
I had never known before that I had been in any danger.
"It's been a sore time for him and you too," she added. "You must be a good son to him, Ranald, for he was in a great way about you, they tell me."
Turkey said nothing, and I was too much surprised to know what to say; for as often as my father had come into my room, he had always looked cheerful, and I had had no idea that he was uneasy about me.
After a little more talk, Turkey rose, and said we must be going.
"Well, Ranald," said his mother, "you must come and see me any time when you're tired at the school, and you can lie down and rest yourself a bit. Be a good lad, Johnnie, and mind your work."
"Yes, mother, I'll try," answered Turkey cheerfully, as he hoisted me once more upon his back. "Good day, mother," he added, and left the room.
I mention this little incident because it led to other things afterwards. I rode home upon Turkey's back; and with my father's leave, instead of returning to school that day, spent the afternoon in the fields with Turkey.
In the middle of the field where the cattle were that day, there was a large circular mound. I have often thought since that it must have been a barrow, with dead men's bones in the heart of it, but no such suspicion had then crossed my mind. Its sides were rather steep, and covered with lovely grass. On the side farthest from the manse, and without one human dwelling in sight, Turkey and I lay that afternoon, in a bliss enhanced to me, I am afraid, by the contrasted thought of the close, hot, dusty schoolroom, where my class-fellows were talking, laughing, and wrangling, or perhaps trying to work in spite of the difficulties of after-dinner disinclination. A fitful little breeze, as if itself subject to the influence of the heat, would wake up for a few moments, wave a few heads of horse-daisies, waft a few strains of odour from the blossoms of the white clover, and then die away fatigued with the effort. Turkey took out his Jews' harp, and discoursed soothing if not eloquent strains.
At our feet, a few yards from the mound, ran a babbling brook, which divided our farm from the next. Those of my readers whose ears are open to the music of Nature, must have observed how different are the songs sung by different brooks. Some are a mere tinkling, others are sweet as silver bells, with a tone besides which no bell ever had. Some sing in a careless, defiant tone. This one sung in a veiled voice, a contralto muffled in the hollows of overhanging banks, with a low, deep, musical gurgle in some of the stony eddies, in which a straw would float for days and nights till a flood came, borne round and round in a funnel-hearted whirlpool. The brook was deep for its size, and had a good deal to say in a solemn tone for such a small stream. We lay on the side of the hillock, I say, and Turkey's Jews' harp mingled its sounds with those of the brook. After a while he laid it aside, and we were both silent for a time.
At length Turkey spoke.
"You've seen my mother, Ranald."
"She's all I've got to look after."
"I haven't got any mother to look after, Turkey."
"No. You've a father to look after you. I must do it, you know. My father wasn't over good to my mother. He used to get drunk sometimes, and then he was very rough with her. I must make it up to her as well as I can. She's not well off, Ranald."
"Isn't she, Turkey?"
"No. She works very hard at her spinning, and no one spins better than my mother. How could they? But it's very poor pay, you know, and she'll be getting old by and by."
"Not to-morrow, Turkey."
"No, not to-morrow, nor the day after," said Turkey, looking up with some surprise to see what I meant by the remark.
He then discovered that my eyes had led my thoughts astray, and that what he had been saying about his mother had got no farther than into my ears. For on the opposite side of the stream, on the grass, like a shepherdess in an old picture, sat a young girl, about my own age, in the midst of a crowded colony of daisies and white clover, knitting so that her needles went as fast as Kirsty's, and were nearly as invisible as the thing with the hooked teeth in it that looked so dangerous and ran itself out of sight upon Turkey's mother's spinning-wheel. A little way from her was a fine cow feeding, with a long iron chain dragging after her. The girl was too far off for me to see her face very distinctly; but something in her shape, her posture, and the hang of her head, I do not know what, had attracted me.
"Oh! there's Elsie Duff," said Turkey, himself forgetting his mother in the sight—"with her granny's cow! I didn't know she was coming here to-day."
"How is it," I asked, "that she is feeding her on old James Joss's land?"
"Oh! they're very good to Elsie, you see. Nobody cares much about her grandmother; but Elsie's not her grandmother, and although the cow belongs to the old woman, yet for Elsie's sake, this one here and that one there gives her a bite for it—that's a day's feed generally. If you look at the cow, you'll see she's not like one that feeds by the roadsides. She's as plump as needful, and has a good udderful of milk besides."
"I'll run down and tell her she may bring the cow into this field to-morrow," I said, rising.
"I would if it were mine" said Turkey, in a marked tone, which I understood.
"Oh! I see, Turkey," I said. "You mean I ought to ask my father."
"Yes, to be sure, I do mean that," answered Turkey.
"Then it's as good as done," I returned. "I will ask him to-night."
"She's a good girl, Elsie," was all Turkey's reply.
How it happened I cannot now remember, but I know that, after all, I did not ask my father, and Granny Gregson's cow had no bite either off the glebe or the farm. And Turkey's reflections concerning the mother he had to take care of having been interrupted, the end to which they were moving remained for the present unuttered.
I soon grew quite strong again, and had neither plea nor desire for exemption from school labours. My father also had begun to take me in hand as well as my brother Tom; and what with arithmetic and Latin together, not to mention geography and history, I had quite enough to do, and quite as much also as was good for me.
A New Companion
During this summer, I made the acquaintance at school of a boy called Peter Mason. Peter was a clever boy, from whose merry eye a sparkle was always ready to break. He seldom knew his lesson well, but, when kept in for not knowing it, had always learned it before any of the rest had got more than half through. Amongst those of his own standing he was the acknowledged leader in the playground, and was besides often invited to take a share in the amusements of the older boys, by whom he was petted because of his cleverness and obliging disposition. Beyond school hours, he spent his time in all manner of pranks. In the hot summer weather he would bathe twenty times a day, and was as much at home in the water as any dabchick. And that was how I came to be more with him than was good for me.
There was a small river not far from my father's house, which at a certain point was dammed back by a weir of large stones to turn part of it aside into a mill-race. The mill stood a little way down, under a steep bank. It was almost surrounded with trees, willows by the water's edge, and birches and larches up the bank. Above the dam was a fine spot for bathing, for you could get any depth you liked—from two feet to five or six; and here it was that most of the boys of the village bathed, and I with them. I cannot recall the memory of those summer days without a gush of delight gurgling over my heart, just as the water used to gurgle over the stones of the dam. It was a quiet place, particularly on the side to which my father's farm went down, where it was sheltered by the same little wood which farther on surrounded the mill. The field which bordered the river was kept in natural grass, thick and short and fine, for here on the bank it grew well, although such grass was not at all common in that part of the country: upon other parts of the same farm, the grass was sown every year along with the corn. Oh the summer days, with the hot sun drawing the odours from the feathery larches and the white-stemmed birches, when, getting out of the water, I would lie in the warm soft grass, where now and then the tenderest little breeze would creep over my skin, until the sun baking me more than was pleasant, I would rouse myself with an effort, and running down to the fringe of rushes that bordered the full-brimmed river, plunge again headlong into the quiet brown water, and dabble and swim till I was once more weary! For innocent animal delight, I know of nothing to match those days—so warm, yet so pure-aired—so clean, so glad. I often think how God must love his little children to have invented for them such delights! For, of course, if he did not love the children and delight in their pleasure, he would not have invented the two and brought them together. Yes, my child, I know what you would say,—"How many there are who have no such pleasures!" I grant it sorrowfully; but you must remember that God has not done with them yet; and, besides, that there are more pleasures in the world than you or I know anything about. And if we had it all pleasure, I know I should not care so much about what is better, and I would rather be made good than have any other pleasure in the world; and so would you, though perhaps you do not know it yet.
One day, a good many of us were at the water together. I was somebody amongst them in my own estimation because I bathed off my father's ground, while they were all on a piece of bank on the other side which was regarded as common to the village. Suddenly upon the latter spot, when they were all undressed, and some already in the water, appeared a man who had lately rented the property of which that was part, accompanied by a dog, with a flesh-coloured nose and a villainous look—a mongrel in which the bull predominated. He ordered everyone off his premises. Invaded with terror, all, except a big boy who trusted that the dog would be more frightened at his naked figure than he was at the dog, plunged into the river, and swam or waded from the inhospitable shore. Once in the embrace of the stream, some of them thoughtlessly turned and mocked the enemy, forgetting how much they were still in his power. Indignant at the tyrant, I stood up in the "limpid wave", and assured the aquatic company of a welcome to the opposite bank. So far all was very well. But their clothes! They, alas! were upon the bank they had left!
The spirit of a host was upon me, for now I regarded them all as my guests.
"You come ashore when you like," I said; "I will see what can be done about your clothes."
I knew that just below the dam lay a little boat built by the miller's sons. It was clumsy enough, but in my eyes a marvel of engineering art. On the opposite side stood the big boy braving the low-bred cur which barked and growled at him with its ugly head stretched out like a serpent's; while his owner, who was probably not so unkind as we thought him, stood enjoying the fun of it all. Reckoning upon the big boy's assistance, I scrambled out of the water, and sped, like Achilles of the swift foot, for the boat. I jumped in and seized the oars, intending to row across, and get the big boy to throw the clothes of the party into the boat. But I had never handled an oar in my life, and in the middle passage—how it happened I cannot tell—I found myself floundering in the water.
Now, although you might expect that the water being dammed back just here, it would be shallow below the dam, it was just the opposite. Had the bottom been hard, it would have been shallow; but as the bottom was soft and muddy, the rush of the water over the dam in the winter-floods had here made a great hollow. There was besides another weir a very little way below which again dammed the water back; so that the depth was greater here than in almost any other part within the ken of the village boys. Indeed there were horrors afloat concerning its depth. I was but a poor swimmer, for swimming is a natural gift, and is not equally distributed to all. I might have done better, however, but for those stories of the awful gulf beneath me. I was struggling and floundering, half-blind, and quite deaf, with a sense of the water constantly getting up and stopping me, whatever I wanted to do, when I felt myself laid hold of by the leg, dragged under water, and a moment after landed safe on the bank. Almost the same moment I heard a plunge, and getting up, staggering and bewildered, saw, as through the haze of a dream, a boy swimming after the boat, which had gone down with the slow current. I saw him overtake it, scramble into it in midstream, and handle the oars as to the manner born. When he had brought it back to the spot where I stood, I knew that Peter Mason was my deliverer. Quite recovered by this time from my slight attack of drowning, I got again into the boat, and leaving the oars to Peter, was rowed across and landed. There was no further difficulty. The man, alarmed, I suppose, at the danger I had run, recalled his dog; we bundled in the clothes; Peter rowed them across; Rory, the big boy, took the water after the boat, and I plunged in again above the dam. For the whole of that summer and part of the following winter, Peter was my hero, to the forgetting even of my friend Turkey. I took every opportunity of joining him in his games, partly from gratitude, partly from admiration, but more than either from the simple human attraction of the boy. It was some time before he led me into any real mischief, but it came at last.
I Go Down Hill
It came in the following winter.
My father had now begun to teach me as well as Tom, but I confess I did not then value the privilege. I had got much too fond of the society of Peter Mason, and all the time I could command I spent with him. Always full of questionable frolic, the spirit of mischief gathered in him as the dark nights drew on. The sun, and the wind, and the green fields, and the flowing waters of summer kept him within bounds; but when the ice and the snow came, when the sky was grey with one cloud, when the wind was full of needle-points of frost and the ground was hard as a stone, when the evenings were dark, and the sun at noon shone low down and far away in the south, then the demon of mischief awoke in the bosom of Peter Mason, and, this winter, I am ashamed to say, drew me also into the net.
Nothing very bad was the result before the incident I am about to relate. There must have been, however, a gradual declension towards it, although the pain which followed upon this has almost obliterated the recollection of preceding follies. Nobody does anything bad all at once. Wickedness needs an apprenticeship as well as more difficult trades.
It was in January, not long after the shortest day, the sun setting about half-past three o'clock. At three school was over, and just as we were coming out, Peter whispered to me, with one of his merriest twinkles in his eyes:
"Come across after dark, Ranald, and we'll have some fun."
I promised, and we arranged when and where to meet. It was Friday, and I had no Latin to prepare for Saturday, therefore my father did not want me. I remember feeling very jolly as I went home to dinner, and made the sun set ten times at least, by running up and down the earthen wall which parted the fields from the road; for as often as I ran up I saw him again over the shoulder of the hill, behind which he was going down. When I had had my dinner, I was so impatient to join Peter Mason that I could not rest, and from very idleness began to tease wee Davie. A great deal of that nasty teasing, so common among boys, comes of idleness. Poor Davie began to cry at last, and I, getting more and more wicked, went on teasing him, until at length he burst into a howl of wrath and misery, whereupon the Kelpie, who had some tenderness for him, burst into the room, and boxed my ears soundly. I was in a fury of rage and revenge, and had I been near anything I could have caught up, something serious would have been the result. In spite of my resistance, she pushed me out of the room and locked the door. I would have complained to my father, but I was perfectly aware that, although she had no right to strike me, I had deserved chastisement for my behaviour to my brother. I was still boiling with anger when I set off for the village to join Mason. I mention all this to show that I was in a bad state of mind, and thus prepared for the wickedness which followed. I repeat, a boy never disgraces himself all at once. He does not tumble from the top to the bottom of the cellar stair. He goes down the steps himself till he comes to the broken one, and then he goes to the bottom with a rush. It will also serve to show that the enmity between Mrs. Mitchell and me had in nowise abated, and that however excusable she might be in the case just mentioned, she remained an evil element in the household.
When I reached the village, I found very few people about. The night was very cold, for there was a black frost. There had been a thaw the day before which had carried away the most of the snow, but in the corners lay remnants of dirty heaps which had been swept up there. I was waiting near one of these, which happened to be at the spot where Peter had arranged to meet me, when from a little shop near a girl came out and walked quickly down the street. I yielded to the temptation arising in a mind which had grown a darkness with slimy things crawling in it. I kicked a hole in the frozen crust of the heap, scraped out a handful of dirty snow, kneaded it into a snowball, and sent it after the girl. It struck her on the back of the head. She gave a cry and ran away, with her hand to her forehead. Brute that I was, I actually laughed. I think I must have been nearer the devil then than I have been since. At least I hope so. For you see it was not with me as with worse-trained boys. I knew quite well that I was doing wrong, and refused to think about it. I felt bad inside. Peter might have done the same thing without being half as wicked as I was. He did not feel the wickedness of that kind of thing as I did. He would have laughed over it merrily. But the vile dregs of my wrath with the Kelpie were fermenting in my bosom, and the horrid pleasure I found in annoying an innocent girl because the wicked Kelpie had made me angry, could never have been expressed in a merry laugh like Mason's. The fact is, I was more displeased with myself than with anybody else, though I did not allow it, and would not take the trouble to repent and do the right thing. If I had even said to wee Davie that I was sorry, I do not think I should have done the other wicked things that followed; for this was not all by any means. In a little while Peter joined me. He laughed, of course, when I told him how the girl had run like a frighted hare, but that was poor fun in his eyes.
"Look here, Ranald," he said, holding out something like a piece of wood.
"What is it, Peter?" I asked.
"It's the stalk of a cabbage," he answered. "I've scooped out the inside and filled it with tow. We'll set fire to one end, and blow the smoke through the keyhole."
"Whose keyhole, Peter?"
"An old witch's that I know of. She'll be in such a rage! It'll be fun to hear her cursing and swearing. We'd serve the same to every house in the row, but that would be more than we could get off with. Come along. Here's a rope to tie her door with first."
I followed him, not without inward misgivings, which I kept down as well as I could. I argued with myself, "I am not doing it; I am only going with Peter: what business is that of anybody's so long as I don't touch the thing myself?" Only a few minutes more, and I was helping Peter to tie the rope to the latch-handle of a poor little cottage, saying now to myself, "This doesn't matter. This won't do her any harm. This isn't smoke. And after all, smoke won't hurt the nasty old thing. It'll only make her angry. It may do her cough good: I dare say she's got a cough." I knew all I was saying was false, and yet I acted on it. Was not that as wicked as wickedness could be? One moment more, and Peter was blowing through the hollow cabbage stalk in at the keyhole with all his might. Catching a breath of the stifling smoke himself, however, he began to cough violently, and passed the wicked instrument to me. I put my mouth to it, and blew with all my might. I believe now that there was some far more objectionable stuff mingled with the tow. In a few moments we heard the old woman begin to cough. Peter, who was peeping in at the window, whispered—
"She's rising. Now we'll catch it, Ranald!"
Coughing as she came, I heard her with shuffling steps approach the door, thinking to open it for air. When she failed in opening it, and found besides where the smoke was coming from, she broke into a torrent of fierce and vengeful reproaches, mingled with epithets by no means flattering. She did not curse and swear as Peter had led me to expect, although her language was certainly far enough from refined; but therein I, being, in a great measure, the guilty cause, was more to blame than she. I laughed because I would not be unworthy of my companion, who was genuinely amused; but I was, in reality, shocked at the tempest I had raised. I stopped blowing, aghast at what I had done; but Peter caught the tube from my hand and recommenced the assault with fresh vigour, whispering through the keyhole, every now and then between the blasts, provoking, irritating, even insulting remarks on the old woman's personal appearance and supposed ways of living. This threw her into paroxysms of rage and of coughing, both increasing in violence; and the war of words grew, she tugging at the door as she screamed, he answering merrily, and with pretended sympathy for her sufferings, until I lost all remaining delicacy in the humour of the wicked game, and laughed loud and heartily.
Of a sudden the scolding and coughing ceased. A strange sound and again silence followed. Then came a shrill, suppressed scream; and we heard the voice of a girl, crying:
"Grannie! grannie! What's the matter with you? Can't you speak to me, grannie? They've smothered my grannie!"
Sobs and moans were all we heard now. Peter had taken fright at last, and was busy undoing the rope. Suddenly he flung the door wide and fled, leaving me exposed to the full gaze of the girl. To my horror it was Elsie Duff! She was just approaching the door, her eyes streaming with tears, and her sweet face white with agony. I stood unable to move or speak. She turned away without a word, and began again to busy herself with the old woman, who lay on the ground not two yards from the door. I heard a heavy step approaching. Guilt awoke fear and restored my powers of motion. I fled at full speed, not to find Mason, but to leave everything behind me.
When I reached the manse, it stood alone in the starry blue night. Somehow I could not help thinking of the time when I came home after waking up in the barn. That, too, was a time of misery, but, oh! how different from this! Then I had only been cruelly treated myself; now I had actually committed cruelty. Then I sought my father's bosom as the one refuge; now I dreaded the very sight of my father, for I could not look him in the face. He was my father, but I was not his son. A hurried glance at my late life revealed that I had been behaving very badly, growing worse and worse. I became more and more miserable as I stood, but what to do I could not tell. The cold at length drove me into the house. I generally sat with my father in his study of a winter night now, but I dared not go near it. I crept to the nursery, where I found a bright fire burning, and Allister reading by the blaze, while Davie lay in bed at the other side of the room. I sat down and warmed myself, but the warmth could not reach the lump of ice at my heart. I sat and stared at the fire. Allister was too much occupied with his book to take any heed of me. All at once I felt a pair of little arms about my neck, and Davie was trying to climb upon my knees. Instead of being comforted, however, I spoke very crossly, and sent him back to his bed whimpering. You see I was only miserable; I was not repentant. I was eating the husks with the swine, and did not relish them; but I had not said, "I will arise and go to my father".
How I got through the rest of that evening I hardly know. I tried to read, but could not. I was rather fond of arithmetic; so I got my slate and tried to work a sum; but in a few moments I was sick of it. At family prayers I never lifted my head to look at my father, and when they were over, and I had said good night to him, I felt that I was sneaking out of the room. But I had some small sense of protection and safety when once in bed beside little Davie, who was sound asleep, and looked as innocent as little Samuel when the voice of God was going to call him. I put my arm round him, hugged him close to me, and began to cry, and the crying brought me sleep.
It was a very long time now since I had dreamt my old childish dream; but this night it returned. The old sunny-faced sun looked down upon me very solemnly. There was no smile on his big mouth, no twinkle about the corners of his little eyes. He looked at Mrs. Moon as much as to say, "What is to be done? The boy has been going the wrong way: must we disown him?" The moon neither shook her head nor moved her lips, but turned as on a pivot, and stood with her back to her husband, looking very miserable. Not one of the star-children moved from its place. They shone sickly and small. In a little while they faded out; then the moon paled and paled until she too vanished without ever turning her face to her husband; and last the sun himself began to change, only instead of paling he drew in all his beams, and shrunk smaller and smaller, until no bigger than a candle-flame. Then I found that I was staring at a candle on the table; and that Tom was kneeling by the side of the other bed, saying his prayers.
The Trouble Grows
When I woke in the morning, I tried to persuade myself that I had made a great deal too much of the whole business; that if not a dignified thing to do, it was at worst but a boy's trick; only I would have no more to say to Peter Mason, who had betrayed me at the last moment without even the temptation of any benefit to himself. I went to school as usual. It was the day for the Shorter Catechism. None failed but Peter and me; and we two were kept in alone, and left in the schoolroom together. I seated myself as far from him as I could. In half an hour he had learned his task, while I had not mastered the half of mine. Thereupon he proceeded, regardless of my entreaties, to prevent me learning it. I begged, and prayed, and appealed to his pity, but he would pull the book away from me, gabble bits of ballads in my ear as I was struggling with Effectual Calling, tip up the form on which I was seated, and, in short, annoy me in twenty different ways. At last I began to cry, for Mason was a bigger and stronger boy than I, and I could not help myself against him. Lifting my head after the first vexation was over, I thought I saw a shadow pass from the window. Although I could not positively say I saw it, I had a conviction it was Turkey, and my heart began to turn again towards him. Emboldened by the fancied proximity, I attempted my lesson once more, but that moment Peter was down upon me like a spider. At last, however, growing suddenly weary of the sport, he desisted, and said:
"Ran, you can stay if you like. I've learned my catechism, and I don't see why I should wait his time."
As he spoke he drew a picklock from his pocket—his father was an ironmonger—deliberately opened the schoolroom door, slipped out, and locked it behind him. Then he came to one of the windows, and began making faces at me. But vengeance was nigher than he knew. A deeper shadow darkened my page, and when I looked up, there was Turkey towering over Mason, with his hand on his collar, and his whip lifted. The whip did not look formidable. Mason received the threat as a joke, and laughed in Turkey's face. Perceiving, however, that Turkey looked dangerous, with a sudden wriggle, at which he was an adept, he broke free, and, trusting to his tried speed of foot, turned his head and made a grimace as he took to his heels. Before, however, he could widen the space between them sufficiently, Turkey's whip came down upon him. With a howl of pain Peter doubled himself up, and Turkey fell upon him, and, heedless of his yells and cries, pommelled him severely. Although they were now at some distance, too great for the distinguishing of words, I could hear that Turkey mingled admonition with punishment. A little longer, and Peter crept past the window, a miserable mass of collapsed and unstrung impudence, his face bleared with crying, and his knuckles dug into his eyes. And this was the boy I had chosen for my leader! He had been false to me, I said to myself; and the noble Turkey, seeing his behaviour through the window, had watched to give him his deserts. My heart was full of gratitude.
Once more Turkey drew near the window. What was my dismay and indignation to hear him utter the following words:
"If you weren't your father's son, Ranald, and my own old friend, I would serve you just the same."
Wrath and pride arose in me at the idea of Turkey, who used to call himself my horse, behaving to me after this fashion; and, my evil ways having half made a sneak of me, I cried out:
"I'll tell my father, Turkey."
"I only wish you would, and then I should be no tell-tale if he asked me why, and I told him all about it. You young blackguard! You're no gentleman! To sneak about the streets and hit girls with snowballs! I scorn you!"
"You must have been watching, then, Turkey, and you had no business to do that," I said, plunging at any defence.
"I was not watching you. But if I had been, it would have been just as right as watching Hawkie. You ill-behaved creature! You're a true minister's son."
"It's a mean thing to do, Turkey," I persisted, seeking to stir up my own anger and blow up my self-approval.
"I tell you I did not do it. I met Elsie Duff crying in the street because you had hit her with a dirty snowball. And then to go and smoke her and her poor grannie, till the old woman fell down in a faint or a fit, I don't know which! You deserve a good pommelling yourself, I can tell you, Ranald. I'm ashamed of you."
He turned to go away.
"Turkey, Turkey," I cried, "isn't the old woman better?"
"I don't know. I'm going to see," he answered.
"Come back and tell me, Turkey," I shouted, as he disappeared from the field of my vision.
"Indeed I won't. I don't choose to keep company with such as you. But if ever I hear of you touching them again, you shall have more of me than you'll like, and you may tell your father so when you please."
I had indeed sunk low when Turkey, who had been such a friend, would have nothing to say to me more. In a few minutes the master returned, and finding me crying, was touched with compassion. He sent me home at once, which was well for me, as I could not have repeated a single question. He thought Peter had crept through one of the panes that opened for ventilation, and did not interrogate me about his disappearance.
The whole of the rest of that day was miserable enough. I even hazarded one attempt at making friends with Mrs. Mitchell, but she repelled me so rudely that I did not try again. I could not bear the company of either Allister or Davie. I would have gone and told Kirsty, but I said to myself that Turkey must have already prejudiced her against me. I went to bed the moment prayers were over, and slept a troubled sleep. I dreamed that Turkey had gone and told my father, and that he had turned me out of the house.
Light out of Darkness
I woke early on the Sunday morning, and a most dreary morning it was. I could not lie in bed, and, although no one was up yet, rose and dressed myself. The house was as waste as a sepulchre. I opened the front door and went out. The world itself was no better. The day had hardly begun to dawn. The dark dead frost held it in chains of iron. The sky was dull and leaden, and cindery flakes of snow were thinly falling. Everywhere life looked utterly dreary and hopeless. What was there worth living for? I went out on the road, and the ice in the ruts crackled under my feet like the bones of dead things. I wandered away from the house, and the keen wind cut me to the bone, for I had not put on plaid or cloak. I turned into a field, and stumbled along over its uneven surface, swollen into hard frozen lumps, so that it was like walking upon stones. The summer was gone and the winter was here, and my heart was colder and more miserable than any winter in the world. I found myself at length at the hillock where Turkey and I had lain on that lovely afternoon the year before. The stream below was dumb with frost. The wind blew wearily but sharply across the bare field. There was no Elsie Duff, with head drooping over her knitting, seated in the summer grass on the other side of a singing brook. Her head was aching on her pillow because I had struck her with that vile lump; and instead of the odour of white clover she was breathing the dregs of the hateful smoke with which I had filled the cottage. I sat down, cold as it was, on the frozen hillock, and buried my face in my hands. Then my dream returned upon me. This was how I sat in my dream when my father had turned me out-of-doors. Oh how dreadful it would be! I should just have to lie down and die.
I could not sit long for the cold. Mechanically I rose and paced about. But I grew so wretched in body that it made me forget for a while the trouble of my mind, and I wandered home again. The house was just stirring. I crept to the nursery, undressed, and lay down beside little Davie, who cried out in his sleep when my cold feet touched him. But I did not sleep again, although I lay till all the rest had gone to the parlour. I found them seated round a blazing fire waiting for my father. He came in soon after, and we had our breakfast, and Davie gave his crumbs as usual to the robins and sparrows which came hopping on the window-sill. I fancied my father's eyes were often turned in my direction, but I could not lift mine to make sure. I had never before known what misery was.
Only Tom and I went to church that day: it was so cold. My father preached from the text, "Be sure your sin shall find you out". I thought with myself that he had found out my sin, and was preparing to punish me for it, and I was filled with terror as well as dismay. I could scarcely keep my seat, so wretched was I. But when after many instances in which punishment had come upon evil-doers when they least expected it, and in spite of every precaution to fortify themselves against it, he proceeded to say that a man's sin might find him out long before the punishment of it overtook him, and drew a picture of the misery of the wicked man who fled when none pursued him, and trembled at the rustling of a leaf, then I was certain that he knew what I had done, or had seen through my face into my conscience. When at last we went home, I kept waiting the whole of the day for the storm to break, expecting every moment to be called to his study. I did not enjoy a mouthful of my food, for I felt his eyes upon me, and they tortured me. I was like a shy creature of the woods whose hole had been stopped up: I had no place of refuge—nowhere to hide my head; and I felt so naked!
My very soul was naked. After tea I slunk away to the nursery, and sat staring into the fire. Mrs. Mitchell came in several times and scolded me for sitting there, instead of with Tom and the rest in the parlour, but I was too miserable even to answer her. At length she brought Davie, and put him to bed; and a few minutes after, I heard my father coming down the stair with Allister, who was chatting away to him. I wondered how he could. My father came in with the big Bible under his arm, as was his custom on Sunday nights, drew a chair to the table, rang for candles, and with Allister by his side and me seated opposite to him, began to find a place from which to read to us. To my yet stronger conviction, he began and read through without a word of remark the parable of the Prodigal Son. When he came to the father's delight at having him back, the robe, and the shoes, and the ring, I could not repress my tears. "If I could only go back," I thought, "and set it all right! but then I've never gone away." It was a foolish thought, instantly followed by a longing impulse to tell my father all about it. How could it be that I had not thought of this before? I had been waiting all this time for my sin to find me out; why should I not frustrate my sin, and find my father first?
As soon as he had done reading, and before he had opened his mouth to make any remark, I crept round the table to his side, and whispered in his ear,—
"Papa, I want to speak to you."
"Very well, Ranald," he said, more solemnly, I thought, than usual; "come up to the study."
He rose and led the way, and I followed. A whimper of disappointment came from Davie's bed. My father went and kissed him, and said he would soon be back, whereupon Davie nestled down satisfied.
When we reached the study, he closed the door, sat down by the fire, and drew me towards him.
I burst out crying, and could not speak for sobs. He encouraged me most kindly. He said—
"Have you been doing anything wrong, my boy?"
"Yes, papa, very wrong," I sobbed. "I'm disgusted with myself."
"I am glad to hear it, my dear," he returned. "There is some hope of you, then."
"Oh! I don't know that," I rejoined. "Even Turkey despises me."
"That's very serious," said my father. "He's a fine fellow, Turkey. I should not like him to despise me. But tell me all about it."
It was with great difficulty I could begin, but with the help of questioning me, my father at length understood the whole matter. He paused for a while plunged in thought; then rose, saying,—
"It's a serious affair, my dear boy; but now you have told me, I shall be able to help you."
"But you knew about it before, didn't you, papa? Surely you did!"
"Not a word of it, Ranald. You fancied so because your sin had found you out. I must go and see how the poor woman is. I don't want to reproach you at all, now you are sorry, but I should like you just to think that you have been helping to make that poor old woman wicked. She is naturally of a sour disposition, and you have made it sourer still, and no doubt made her hate everybody more than she was already inclined to do. You have been working against God in this parish."
I burst into fresh tears. It was too dreadful.
"What am I to do?" I cried.
"Of course you must beg Mrs. Gregson's pardon, and tell her that you are both sorry and ashamed."
"Yes, yes, papa. Do let me go with you."
"It's too late to find her up, I'm afraid; but we can just go and see. We've done a wrong, a very grievous wrong, my boy, and I cannot rest till I at least know the consequences of it."
He put on his long greatcoat and muffler in haste, and having seen that I too was properly wrapped up, he opened the door and stepped out. But remembering the promise he had made to Davie, he turned and went down to the nursery to speak to him again, while I awaited him on the doorsteps. It would have been quite dark but for the stars, and there was no snow to give back any of their shine. The earth swallowed all their rays, and was no brighter for it. But oh, what a change to me from the frightful morning! When my father returned, I put my hand in his almost as fearlessly as Allister or wee Davie might have done, and away we walked together.
"Papa," I said, "why did you say we have done a wrong? You did not do it."
"My dear boy, persons who are so near each other as we are, must not only bear the consequences together of any wrong done by one of them, but must, in a sense, bear each other's iniquities even. If I sin, you must suffer; if you sin, you being my own boy, I must suffer. But this is not all: it lies upon both of us to do what we can to get rid of the wrong done; and thus we have to bear each other's sin. I am accountable to make amends as far as I can; and also to do what I can to get you to be sorry and make amends as far as you can."
"But, papa, isn't that hard?" I asked.
"Do you think I should like to leave you to get out of your sin as you best could, or sink deeper and deeper into it? Should I grudge anything to take the weight of the sin, or the wrong to others, off you? Do you think I should want not to be troubled about it? Or if I were to do anything wrong, would you think it very hard that you had to help me to be good, and set things right? Even if people looked down upon you because of me, would you say it was hard? Would you not rather say, 'I'm glad to bear anything for my father: I'll share with him'?"
"Yes, indeed, papa. I would rather share with you than not, whatever it was."
"Then you see, my boy, how kind God is in tying us up in one bundle that way. It is a grand and beautiful thing that the fathers should suffer for the children, and the children for the fathers. Come along. We must step out, or I fear we shall not be able to make our apology to-night. When we've got over this, Ranald, we must be a good deal more careful what company we keep."
"Oh, papa," I answered, "if Turkey would only forgive me!"
"There's no fear. Turkey is sure to forgive you when you've done what you can to make amends. He's a fine fellow, Turkey. I have a high opinion of Turkey—as you call him."
"If he would, papa, I should not wish for any other company than his."
"A boy wants various kinds of companions, Ranald, but I fear you have been neglecting Turkey. You owe him much."
"Yes, indeed I do, papa," I answered; "and I have been neglecting him. If I had kept with Turkey, I should never have got into such a dreadful scrape as this."
"That is too light a word to use for it, my boy. Don't call a wickedness a scrape; for a wickedness it certainly was, though I am only too willing to believe you had no adequate idea at the time how wicked it was."
"I won't again, papa. But I am so relieved already."
"Perhaps poor old Mrs. Gregson is not relieved, though. You ought not to forget her."
Thus talking, we hurried on until we arrived at the cottage. A dim light was visible through the window. My father knocked, and Elsie Duff opened the door.
When we entered, there sat the old woman on the farther side of the hearth, rocking herself to and fro. I hardly dared look up. Elsie's face was composed and sweet. She gave me a shy tremulous smile, which went to my heart and humbled me dreadfully. My father took the stool on which Elsie had been sitting. When he had lowered himself upon it, his face was nearly on a level with that of the old woman, who took no notice of him, but kept rocking herself to and fro and moaning. He laid his hand on hers, which, old and withered and not very clean, lay on her knee.
"How do you find yourself to-night, Mrs. Gregson?" he asked.
"I'm an ill-used woman," she replied with a groan, behaving as if it was my father who had maltreated her, and whose duty it was to make an apology for it.
"I am aware of what you mean, Mrs. Gregson. That is what brought me to inquire after you. I hope you are not seriously the worse for it."
"I'm an ill-used woman," she repeated. "Every man's hand's against me."
"Well, I hardly think that," said my father in a cheerful tone. "My hand's not against you now."
"If you bring up your sons, Mr. Bannerman, to mock at the poor, and find their amusement in driving the aged and infirm to death's door, you can't say your hand's not against a poor lone woman like me."
"But I don't bring up my sons to do so. If I did I shouldn't be here now. I am willing to bear my part of the blame, Mrs. Gregson, but to say I bring my sons up to that kind of wickedness, is to lay on me more than my share, a good deal.—Come here, Ranald."
I obeyed with bowed head and shame-stricken heart, for I saw what wrong I had done my father, and that although few would be so unjust to him as this old woman, many would yet blame the best man in the world for the wrongs of his children. When I stood by my father's side, the old woman just lifted her head once to cast on me a scowling look, and then went on again rocking herself.
"Now, my boy," said my father, "tell Mrs. Gregson why you have come here to-night."
I had to use a dreadful effort to make myself speak. It was like resisting a dumb spirit and forcing the words from my lips. But I did not hesitate a moment. In fact, I dared not hesitate, for I felt that hesitation would be defeat.
"I came, papa——" I began.
"No no, my man," said my father; "you must speak to Mrs. Gregson, not to me."
Thereupon I had to make a fresh effort. When at this day I see a child who will not say the words required of him, I feel again just as I felt then, and think how difficult it is for him to do what he is told; but oh, how I wish he would do it, that he might be a conqueror I for I know that if he will not make the effort, it will grow more and more difficult for him to make any effort. I cannot be too thankful that I was able to overcome now.
"I came, Mrs. Gregson," I faltered, "to tell you that I am very sorry I behaved so ill to you."
"Yes, indeed," she returned. "How would you like anyone to come and serve you so in your grand house? But a poor lone widow woman like me is nothing to be thought of. Oh no! not at all."
"I am ashamed of myself," I said, almost forcing my confession upon her.
"So you ought to be all the days of your life. You deserve to be drummed out of the town for a minister's son that you are! Hoo!"
"I'll never do it again, Mrs. Gregson."
"You'd better not, or you shall hear of it, if there's a sheriff in the county. To insult honest people after that fashion!"
I drew back, more than ever conscious of the wrong I had done in rousing such unforgiving fierceness in the heart of a woman. My father spoke now.
"Shall I tell you, Mrs. Gregson, what made the boy sorry, and made him willing to come and tell you all about it?"
"Oh, I've got friends after all. The young prodigal!"
"You are coming pretty near it, Mrs. Gregson," said my father; "but you haven't touched it quite. It was a friend of yours that spoke to my boy and made him very unhappy about what he had done, telling him over and over again what a shame it was, and how wicked of him. Do you know what friend it was?"
"Perhaps I do, and perhaps I don't. I can guess."
"I fear you don't guess quite correctly. It was the best friend you ever had or ever will have. It was God himself talking in my poor boy's heart. He would not heed what he said all day, but in the evening we were reading how the prodigal son went back to his father, and how the father forgave him; and he couldn't stand it any longer, and came and told me all about it."
"It wasn't you he had to go to. It wasn't you he smoked to death—was it now? It was easy enough to go to you."
"Not so easy perhaps. But he has come to you now."
"Come when you made him!"
"I didn't make him. He came gladly. He saw it was all he could do to make up for the wrong he had done."
"A poor amends!" I heard her grumble; but my father took no notice.
"And you know, Mrs. Gregson," he went on, "when the prodigal son did go back to his father, his father forgave him at once."
"Easy enough! He was his father, and fathers always side with their sons."
I saw my father thinking for a moment.
"Yes; that is true," he said. "And what he does himself, he always wants his sons and daughters to do. So he tells us that if we don't forgive one another, he will not forgive us. And as we all want to be forgiven, we had better mind what we're told. If you don't forgive this boy, who has done you a great wrong, but is sorry for it, God will not forgive you—and that's a serious affair."
"He's never begged my pardon yet," said the old woman, whose dignity required the utter humiliation of the offender.
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Gregson," I said. "I shall never be rude to you again."
"Very well," she answered, a little mollified at last.
"Keep your promise, and we'll say no more about it. It's for your father's sake, mind, that I forgive you."
I saw a smile trembling about my father's lips, but he suppressed it, saying,
"Won't you shake hands with him, Mrs. Gregson?"
She held out a poor shrivelled hand, which I took very gladly; but it felt so strange in mine that I was frightened at it: it was like something half dead. But at the same moment, from behind me another hand, a rough little hand, but warm and firm and all alive, slipped into my left hand. I knew it was Elsie Duff's, and the thought of how I had behaved to her rushed in upon me with a cold misery of shame. I would have knelt at her feet, but I could not speak my sorrow before witnesses. Therefore I kept hold of her hand and led her by it to the other end of the cottage, for there was a friendly gloom, the only light in the place coming from the glow—not flame—of a fire of peat and bark. She came readily, whispering before I had time to open my mouth—