"Run and fetch Turkey. Tell him to come directly."
Allister always did whatever I asked him. He set off at once. The Kelpie looked suspicious as he left the room, but she had no pretext for interference. I allowed her to tell her tale without interruption. After relating exactly how we had served her the night before, when she had gone on a visit of mercy, as she represented it, she accused me of all my former tricks—that of the cat having, I presume, enlightened her as to the others; and ended by saying that if she were not protected against me and Turkey, she must leave the place.
"Let her go, father," I said. "None of us like her."
"I like her," whimpered little Davie.
"Silence, sir!" said my father, very sternly. "Are these things true?"
"Yes, father," I answered. "But please hear what I've got to say. She's only told you her side of it."
"You have confessed to the truth of what she alleges," said my father. "I did think," he went on, more in sorrow than in anger, though a good deal in both, "that you had turned from your bad ways. To think of my taking you with me to the death-bed of a holy man, and then finding you so soon after playing such tricks!—more like the mischievousness of a monkey than of a human being!"
"I don't say it was right, father; and I'm very sorry if I have offended you."
"You have offended me, and very deeply. You have been unkind and indeed cruel to a good woman who has done her best for you for many years!"
I was not too much abashed to take notice that the Kelpie bridled at this.
"I can't say I'm sorry for what I've done to her," I said.
"Really, Ranald, you are impertinent. I would send you out of the room at once, but you must beg Mrs. Mitchell's pardon first, and after that there will be something more to say, I fear."
"But, father, you have not heard my story yet."
"Well—go on. It is fair, I suppose, to hear both sides. But nothing can justify such conduct."
I began with trembling voice. I had gone over in my mind the night before all I would say, knowing it better to tell the tale from the beginning circumstantially. Before I had ended, Turkey made his appearance, ushered in by Allister. Both were out of breath with running.
My father stopped me, and ordered Turkey away until I should have finished. I ventured to look up at the Kelpie once or twice. She had grown white, and grew whiter. When Turkey left the room, she would have gone too. But my father told her she must stay and hear me to the end. Several times she broke out, accusing me of telling a pack of wicked lies, but my father told her she should have an opportunity of defending herself, and she must not interrupt me. When I had done, he called Turkey, and made him tell the story. I need hardly say that, although he questioned us closely, he found no discrepancy between our accounts. He turned at last to Mrs. Mitchell, who, but for her rage, would have been in an abject condition.
"Now, Mrs. Mitchell!" he said.
She had nothing to reply beyond asserting that Turkey and I had always hated and persecuted her, and had now told a pack of lies which we had agreed upon, to ruin her, a poor lone woman, with no friends to take her part.
"I do not think it likely they could be so wicked," said my father.
"So I'm to be the only wicked person in the world! Very well, sir! I will leave the house this very day."
"No, no, Mrs. Mitchell; that won't do. One party or the other is very wicked—that is clear; and it is of the greatest consequence to me to find out which. If you go, I shall know it is you, and have you taken up and tried for stealing. Meantime I shall go the round of the parish. I do not think all the poor people will have combined to lie against you."
"They all hate me," said the Kelpie.
"And why?" asked my father.
She made no answer.
"I must get at the truth of it," said my father. "You can go now."
She left the room without another word, and my father turned to Turkey.
"I am surprised at you, Turkey, lending yourself to such silly pranks. Why did you not come and tell me."
"I am very sorry, sir. I was afraid you would be troubled at finding how wicked she was, and I thought we might frighten her away somehow. But Ranald began his tricks without letting me know, and then I saw that mine could be of no use, for she would suspect them after his. Mine would have been better, sir."
"I have no doubt of it, but equally unjustifiable. And you as well as he acted the part of a four-footed animal last night."
"I confess I yielded to temptation then, for I knew it could do no good. It was all for the pleasure of frightening her. It was very foolish of me, and I beg your pardon, sir."
"Well, Turkey, I confess you have vexed me, not by trying to find out the wrong she was doing me and the whole parish, but by taking the whole thing into your own hands. It is worse of you, inasmuch as you are older and far wiser than Ranald. It is worse of Ranald because I was his father. I will try to show you the wrong you have done.—Had you told me without doing anything yourselves, then I might have succeeded in bringing Mrs. Mitchell to repentance. I could have reasoned with her on the matter, and shown her that she was not merely a thief, but a thief of the worst kind, a Judas who robbed the poor, and so robbed God. I could have shown her how cruel she was—"
"Please, sir," interrupted Turkey, "I don't think after all she did it for herself. I do believe," he went on, and my father listened, "that Wandering Willie is some relation of hers. He is the only poor person, almost the only person except Davie, I ever saw her behave kindly to. He was there last night, and also, I fancy, that other time, when Ranald got such a fright. She has poor relations somewhere, and sends the meal to them by Willie. You remember, sir, there were no old clothes of Allister's to be found when you wanted them for Jamie Duff."
"You may be right, Turkey—I dare say you are right. I hope you are, for though bad enough, that would not be quite so bad as doing it for herself."
"I am very sorry, father," I said; "I beg your pardon."
"I hope it will be a lesson to you, my boy. After what you have done, rousing every bad and angry passion in her, I fear it will be of no use to try to make her be sorry and repent. It is to her, not to me, you have done the wrong. I have nothing to complain of for myself—quite the contrary. But it is a very dreadful thing to throw difficulties in the way of repentance and turning from evil works."
"What can I do to make up for it?" I sobbed.
"I don't see at this moment what you can do. I will turn it over in my mind. You may go now."
Thereupon Turkey and I walked away, I to school, he to his cattle. The lecture my father had given us was not to be forgotten. Turkey looked sad, and I felt subdued and concerned.
Everything my father heard confirmed the tale we had told him. But the Kelpie frustrated whatever he may have resolved upon with regard to her: before he returned she had disappeared. How she managed to get her chest away, I cannot tell. I think she must have hid it in some outhouse, and fetched it the next night. Many little things were missed from the house afterwards, but nothing of great value, and neither she nor Wandering Willie ever appeared again. We were all satisfied that poor old Betty knew nothing of her conduct. It was easy enough to deceive her, for she was alone in her cottage, only waited upon by a neighbour who visited her at certain times of the day.
My father, I heard afterwards, gave five shillings out of his own pocket to every one of the poor people whom the Kelpie had defrauded. Her place in the house was, to our endless happiness, taken by Kirsty, and faithfully she carried out my father's instructions that, along with the sacred handful of meal, a penny should be given to every one of the parish poor from that time forward, so long as he lived at the manse.
Not even little Davie cried when he found that Mrs. Mitchell was really gone. It was more his own affection than her kindness that had attached him to her.
Thus were we at last delivered from our Kelpie.
After the expulsion of the Kelpie, and the accession of Kirsty, things went on so peaceably, that the whole time rests in my memory like a summer evening after sundown. I have therefore little more to say concerning our home-life.
There were two schools in the little town—the first, the parish school, the master of which was appointed by the presbytery; the second, one chiefly upheld by the dissenters of the place, the master of which was appointed by the parents of the scholars. This difference, however, indicated very little of the distinction and separation which it would have involved in England. The masters of both were licentiates of the established church, an order having a vague resemblance to that of deacons in the English church; there were at both of them scholars whose fees were paid by the parish, while others at both were preparing for the University; there were many pupils at the second school whose parents took them to the established church on Sundays, and both were yearly examined by the presbytery—that is, the clergymen of a certain district; while my father was on friendly terms with all the parents, some of whom did not come to his church because they thought the expenses of religion should be met by the offerings of those who prized its ministrations, while others regarded the unity of the nation, and thought that religion, like any other of its necessities, ought to be the care of its chosen government. I do not think the second school would ever have come into existence at all except for the requirements of the population, one school being insufficient. There was little real schism in the matter, except between the boys themselves. They made far more of it than their parents, and an occasional outbreak was the consequence.
At this time there was at the second school a certain very rough lad, the least developed beyond the brute, perhaps, of all the scholars of the village. It is more amazing to see how close to the brute a man may remain than it is to see how far he may leave the brute behind. How it began I cannot recall; but this youth, a lad of seventeen, whether moved by dislike or the mere fascination of injury, was in the habit of teasing me beyond the verge of endurance as often as he had the chance. I did not like to complain to my father, though that would have been better than to hate him as I did. I was ashamed of my own impotence for self-defence; but therein I was little to blame, for I was not more than half his size, and certainly had not half his strength. My pride forbidding flight, the probability was, when we met in an out-of-the-way quarter, that he would block my path for half an hour at least, pull my hair, pinch my cheeks, and do everything to annoy me, short of leaving marks of violence upon me. If we met in a street, or other people were in sight, he would pass me with a wink and a grin, as much as to say—Wait.
One of the short but fierce wars between the rival schools broke out. What originated the individual quarrel I cannot tell. I doubt if anyone knew. It had not endured a day, however, before it came to a pitched battle after school hours. The second school was considerably the smaller, but it had the advantage of being perched on the top of the low, steep hill at the bottom of which lay ours. Our battles always began with missiles; and I wonder, as often as I recall the fact, that so few serious accidents were the consequence. From the disadvantages of the ground, we had little chance against the stone-showers which descended upon us like hail, except we charged right up the hill, in the face of the inferior but well-posted enemy. When this was not in favour at the moment, I employed myself in collecting stones and supplying them to my companions, for it seemed to me that every boy, down to the smallest in either school, was skilful in throwing them, except myself: I could not throw halfway up the hill. On this occasion, however, I began to fancy it an unworthy exercise of my fighting powers, and made my first attempt at organizing a troop for an up-hill charge. I was now a tall boy, and of some influence amongst those about my own age. Whether the enemy saw our intent and proceeded to forestall it, I cannot say, but certainly that charge never took place.
A house of some importance was then building, just on the top of the hill, and a sort of hand-wagon, or lorry on low wheels, was in use for moving the large stones employed, the chips from the dressing of which were then for us most formidable missiles. Our adversaries laid hold of this chariot, and turned it into an engine of war. They dragged it to the top of the hill, jumped upon it, as many as it would hold, and, drawn by their own weight, came thundering down upon our troops. Vain was the storm of stones which assailed their advance: they could not have stopped if they would. My company had to open and make way for the advancing prodigy, conspicuous upon which towered my personal enemy Scroggie.
"Now," I called to my men, "as soon as the thing stops, rush in and seize them: they're not half our number. It will be an endless disgrace to let them go."
Whether we should have had the courage to carry out the design had not fortune favoured us, I cannot tell. But as soon as the chariot reached a part of the hill where the slope was less, it turned a little to one side, and Scroggie fell off, drawing half of the load after him. My men rushed in with shouts of defiant onset, but were arrested by the non-resistance of the foe. I sprung to seize Scroggie. He tried to get up, but fell back with a groan. The moment I saw his face, my mood changed. My hatred, without will or wish or effort of mine, turned all at once into pity or something better. In a moment I was down on my knees beside him. His face was white, and drops stood upon his forehead. He lay half upon his side, and with one hand he scooped handfuls of dirt from the road and threw them down again. His leg was broken. I got him to lean his head against me, and tried to make him lie more comfortably; but the moment I sought to move the leg he shrieked out. I sent one of our swiftest runners for the doctor, and in the meantime did the best I could for him. He took it as a matter of course, and did not even thank me. When the doctor came, we got a mattress from a neighbouring house, laid it on the wagon, lifted Scroggie on the top, and dragged him up the hill and home to his mother.
I have said a little, but only a little, concerning our master, Mr. Wilson. At the last examination I had, in compliance with the request of one of the clergymen, read aloud a metrical composition of my own, sent in by way of essay on the given subject, Patriotism, and after this he had shown me a great increase of favour. Perhaps he recognized in me some germ of a literary faculty—I cannot tell: it has never come to much if he did, and he must be greatly disappointed in me, seeing I labour not in living words, but in dead stones. I am certain, though, that whether I build good or bad houses, I should have built worse had I not had the insight he gave me into literature and the nature of literary utterance. I read Virgil and Horace with him, and scanned every doubtful line we came across. I sometimes think now, that what certain successful men want to make them real artists, is simply a knowledge of the literature—which is the essence of the possible art—of the country.
My brother Tom had left the school, and gone to the county town, to receive some final preparation for the University; consequently, so far as the school was concerned, I was no longer in the position of a younger brother. Also Mr. Wilson had discovered that I had some faculty for imparting what knowledge I possessed, and had begun to make use of me in teaching the others. A good deal was done in this way in the Scotch schools. Not that there was the least attempt at system in it: the master, at any moment, would choose the one he thought fit, and set him to teach a class, while he attended to individuals, or taught another class himself. Nothing can be better for the verification of knowledge, or for the discovery of ignorance, than the attempt to teach. In my case it led to other and unforeseen results as well.
The increasing trust the master reposed in me, and the increasing favour which openly accompanied it, so stimulated the growth of my natural vanity, that at length it appeared in the form of presumption, and, I have little doubt, although I was unaware of it at the time, influenced my whole behaviour to my school-fellows. Hence arose the complaint that I was a favourite with the master, and the accusation that I used underhand means to recommend myself to him, of which I am not yet aware that I was ever guilty. My presumption I confess, and wonder that the master did not take earlier measures to check it. When teaching a class, I would not unfrequently, if Mr. Wilson had vacated his chair, climb into it, and sit there as if I were the master of the school. I even went so far as to deposit some of my books in the master's desk, instead of in my own recess. But I had not the least suspicion of the indignation I was thus rousing against me.
One afternoon I had a class of history. They read very badly, with what seemed wilful blundering; but when it came to the questioning on the subject of the lesson, I soon saw there had been a conspiracy. The answers they gave were invariably wrong, generally absurd, sometimes utterly grotesque. I ought to except those of a few girls, who did their best, and apparently knew nothing of the design of the others. One or two girls, however, infected with the spirit of the game, soon outdid the whole class in the wildness of their replies. This at last got the better of me; I lost my temper, threw down my book, and retired to my seat, leaving the class where it stood. The master called me and asked the reason. I told him the truth of the matter. He got very angry, and called out several of the bigger boys and punished them severely. Whether these supposed that I had mentioned them in particular, as I had not, I do not know; but I could read in their faces that they vowed vengeance in their hearts. When the school broke up, I lingered to the last, in the hope they would all go home as usual; but when I came out with the master, and saw the silent waiting groups, it was evident there was more thunder in the moral atmosphere than would admit of easy discharge. The master had come to the same conclusion, for instead of turning towards his own house, he walked with me part of the way home, without alluding however to the reason. Allister was with us, and I led Davie by the hand: it was his first week of school life. When we had got about half the distance, believing me now quite safe, he turned into a footpath and went through the fields back towards the town; while we, delivered from all immediate apprehension, jogged homewards.
When we had gone some distance farther, I happened to look about—why, I could not tell. A crowd was following us at full speed. As soon as they saw that we had discovered them, they broke the silence with a shout, which was followed by the patter of their many footsteps.
"Run, Allister!" I cried; and kneeling, I caught up Davie on my back, and ran with the feet of fear. Burdened thus, Allister was soon far ahead of me.
"Bring Turkey!" I cried after him. "Run to the farm as hard as you can pelt, and bring Turkey to meet us."
"Yes, yes, Ranald," shouted Allister, and ran yet faster.
They were not getting up with us quite so fast as they wished; they began therefore to pick up stones as they ran, and we soon heard them hailing on the road behind us. A little farther, and the stones began to go bounding past us, so that I dared no longer carry Davie on my back. I had to stop, which lost us time, and to shift him into my arms, which made running much harder. Davie kept calling, "Run, Ranald!—here they come!" and jumping so, half in fear, half in pleasure, that I found it very hard work indeed.
Their taunting voices reached me at length, loaded with all sorts of taunting and opprobrious words—some of them, I dare say, deserved, but not all. Next a stone struck me, but not in a dangerous place, though it crippled my running still more. The bridge was now in sight, however, and there I could get rid of Davie and turn at bay, for it was a small wooden bridge, with rails and a narrow gate at the end to keep horsemen from riding over it. The foremost of our pursuers were within a few yards of my heels, when, with a last effort, I bounded on it; and I had just time to set Davie down and turn and bar their way by shutting the gate, before they reached it. I had no breath left but just enough to cry, "Run, Davie!" Davie, however, had no notion of the state of affairs, and did not run, but stood behind me staring. So I was not much better off yet. If he had only run, and I had seen him far enough on the way home, I would have taken to the water, which was here pretty deep, before I would have run any further risk of their getting hold of me. If I could have reached the mill on the opposite bank, a shout would have brought the miller to my aid. But so long as I could prevent them from opening the gate, I thought I could hold the position. There was only a latch to secure it, but I pulled a thin knife from my pocket, and just as I received a blow in the face from the first arrival which knocked me backwards, I had jammed it over the latch through the iron staple in which it worked. Before the first attempt to open it had been followed by the discovery of the obstacle, I was up, and the next moment, with a well-directed kick, disabled a few of the fingers which were fumbling to remove it. To protect the latch was now my main object, but my efforts would have been quite useless, for twenty of them would have been over the top in an instant. Help, however, although unrecognized as such, was making its way through the ranks of the enemy.
They parted asunder, and Scroggie, still lame, strode heavily up to the gate. Recalling nothing but his old enmity, I turned once more and implored Davie. "Do run, Davie, dear! it's all up," I said; but my entreaties were lost upon Davie. Turning again in despair, I saw the lame leg being hoisted over the gate. A shudder ran through me: I could not kick that leg; but I sprang up and hit Scroggie hard in the face. I might as well have hit a block of granite. He swore at me, caught hold of my hand, and turning to the assailants said:
"Now, you be off! This is my little business. I'll do for him!"
Although they were far enough from obeying his orders, they were not willing to turn him into an enemy, and so hung back expectant. Meantime the lame leg was on one side of the gate, the splints of which were sharpened at the points, and the sound leg was upon the other. I, on the one side—for he had let go my hand in order to support himself—retreated a little, and stood upon the defensive, trembling, I must confess; while my enemies on the other side could not reach me so long as Scroggie was upon the top of the gate.
The lame leg went searching gently about, but could find no rest for the sole of its foot, for there was no projecting cross bar upon this side; the repose upon the top was anything but perfect, and the leg suspended behind was useless. The long and the short, both in legs and results, was, that there Scroggie stuck; and so long as he stuck, I was safe. As soon as I saw this, I turned and caught up Davie, thinking to make for home once more. But that very instant there was a rush at the gate; Scroggie was hoisted over, the knife was taken out, and on poured the assailants, before I had quite reached the other end of the bridge.
"At them, Oscar!" cried a voice.
The dog rushed past me on to the bridge, followed by Turkey. I set Davie down, and, holding his hand, breathed again. There was a scurry and a rush, a splash or two in the water, and then back came Oscar with his innocent tongue hanging out like a blood-red banner of victory. He was followed by Scroggie, who was exploding with laughter.
Oscar came up wagging his tail, and looking as pleased as if he had restored obedience to a flock of unruly sheep. I shrank back from Scroggie, wishing Turkey, who was still at the other end of the bridge, would make haste.
"Wasn't it fun, Ranald?" said Scroggie. "You don't think I was so lame that I couldn't get over that gate? I stuck on purpose."
Turkey joined us with an inquiring look, for he knew how Scroggie had been in the habit of treating me.
"It's all right, Turkey," I said. "Scroggie stuck on the gate on purpose."
"A good thing for you, Ranald!" said Turkey. "Didn't you see Peter Mason amongst them?"
"No. He left the school last year."
"He was there, though, and I don't suppose he meant to be agreeable."
"I tell you what," said Scroggie: "if you like, I'll leave my school and come to yours. My mother lets me do as I like."
I thanked him, but said I did not think there would be more of it. It would blow over.
Allister told my father as much as he knew of the affair; and when he questioned me, I told him as much as I knew.
The next morning, just as we were all settling to work, my father entered the school. The hush that followed was intense. The place might have been absolutely empty for any sound I could hear for some seconds. The ringleaders of my enemies held down their heads, as anticipating an outbreak of vengeance. But after a few moments' conversation with Mr. Wilson, my father departed. There was a mystery about the proceeding, an unknown possibility of result, which had a very sedative effect the whole of the morning. When we broke up for dinner, Mr. Wilson detained me, and told me that my father thought it better that, for some time at least, I should not occupy such a prominent position as before. He was very sorry, he said, for I had been a great help to him; and if I did not object, he would ask my father to allow me to assist him in the evening-school during the winter. I was delighted at the prospect, sank back into my natural position, and met with no more annoyance. After a while I was able to assure my former foes that I had had no voice in bringing punishment upon them in particular, and the enmity was, I believe, quite extinguished.
When winter came, and the evening-school was opened, Mr. Wilson called at the manse, and my father very willingly assented to the proposed arrangement. The scholars were mostly young men from neighbouring farms, or from workshops in the village, with whom, although I was so much younger than they, there was no danger of jealousy. The additional assistance they would thus receive, and their respect for superior knowledge, in which, with my advantages, I had no credit over them, would prevent any false shame because of my inferiority in years.
There were a few girls at the school as well—among the rest, Elsie Duff. Although her grandmother was very feeble, Elsie was now able to have a little more of her own way, and there was no real reason why the old woman should not be left for an hour or two in the evening. I need hardly say that Turkey was a regular attendant. He always, and I often, saw Elsie home.
My chief pleasure lay in helping her with her lessons. I did my best to assist all who wanted my aid, but offered unsolicited attention to her. She was not quick, but would never be satisfied until she understood, and that is more than any superiority of gifts. Hence, if her progress was slow, it was unintermitting. Turkey was far before me in trigonometry, but I was able to help him in grammar and geography, and when he commenced Latin, which he did the same winter, I assisted him a good deal.
Sometimes Mr. Wilson would ask me to go home with him after school, and take supper. This made me late, but my father did not mind it, for he liked me to be with Mr. Wilson. I learned a good deal from him at such times. He had an excellent little library, and would take down his favourite books and read me passages. It is wonderful how things which, in reading for ourselves, we might pass over in a half-blind manner, gain their true power and influence through the voice of one who sees and feels what is in them. If a man in whom you have confidence merely lays his finger on a paragraph and says to you, "Read that," you will probably discover three times as much in it as you would if you had only chanced upon it in the course of your reading. In such case the mind gathers itself up, and is all eyes and ears.
But Mr. Wilson would sometimes read me a few verses of his own; and this was a delight such as I have rarely experienced. My reader may wonder that a full-grown man and a good scholar should condescend to treat a boy like me as so much of an equal; but sympathy is precious even from a child, and Mr. Wilson had no companions of his own standing. I believe he read more to Turkey than to me, however.
As I have once apologized already for the introduction of a few of his verses with Scotch words in them, I will venture to try whether the same apology will not cover a second offence of the same sort.
I like ye weel upo' Sundays, Jeanie, In yer goon an' yer ribbons gay; But I like ye better on Mondays, Jeanie, And I like ye better the day.
[Footnote 1: Brave; well dressed.]. [Footnote 2: To-day.]
For it will come into my heid, Jeanie, O' yer braws ye are thinkin' a wee; No' a' o' the Bible-seed, Jeanie, Nor the minister nor me.
[Footnote 1: Bravery; finery.]
And hame across the green, Jeanie, Ye gang wi' a toss o' yer chin: Us twa there's a shadow atween, Jeanie, Though yer hand my airm lies in.
But noo, whan I see ye gang, Jeanie, Busy wi' what's to be dune, Liltin' a haveless sang, Jeanie, I could kiss yer verra shune.
[Footnote 2: Careless.]
Wi' yer silken net on yer hair, Jeanie, In yer bonny blue petticoat, Wi' yer kindly airms a' bare, Jeanie, On yer verra shadow I doat.
For oh! but ye're eident and free, Jeanie, Airy o' hert and o' fit; There's a licht shines oot o' yer ee, Jeanie; O' yersel' ye thinkna a bit.
[Footnote 3: Diligent.] [Footnote 4: Foot.]
Turnin' or steppin' alang, Jeanie, Liftin' an' layin' doon, Settin' richt what's aye gaein' wrang, Jeanie, Yer motion's baith dance an' tune.
Fillin' the cogue frae the coo, Jeanie, Skimmin' the yallow cream, Poorin' awa' the het broo, Jeanie, Lichtin' the lampie's leme—
[Footnote 5: Flame.]
I' the hoose ye're a licht an' a law, Jeanie, A servant like him that's abune: Oh! a woman's bonniest o' a', Jeanie, Whan she's doin' what maun be dune.
Sae, dressed in yer Sunday claes, Jeanie, Fair kythe ye amang the fair; But dressed in yer ilka-day's, Jeanie, Yer beauty's beyond compare.
[Footnote 1: Appear.]
[Footnote 2: Everyday clothes.]
A Winter's Ride
In this winter, the stormiest I can recollect, occurred the chief adventure of my boyhood—indeed, the event most worthy to be called an adventure I have ever encountered.
There had been a tremendous fall of snow, which a furious wind, lasting two days and the night between, had drifted into great mounds, so that the shape of the country was much altered with new heights and hollows. Even those who were best acquainted with them could only guess at the direction of some of the roads, and it was the easiest thing in the world to lose the right track, even in broad daylight. As soon as the storm was over, however, and the frost was found likely to continue, they had begun to cut passages through some of the deeper wreaths, as they called the snow-mounds; while over the tops of others, and along the general line of the more frequented roads, footpaths were soon trodden. It was many days, however, before vehicles could pass, and coach-communication be resumed between the towns. All the short day, the sun, though low, was brilliant, and the whole country shone with dazzling whiteness; but after sunset, which took place between three and four o'clock, anything more dreary can hardly be imagined, especially when the keenest of winds rushed in gusts from the north-east, and lifting the snow-powder from untrodden shadows, blew it, like so many stings, in the face of the freezing traveller.
Early one afternoon, just as I came home from school, which in winter was always over at three o'clock, my father received a message that a certain laird, or squire as he would be called in England—whose house lay three or four miles off amongst the hills, was at the point of death, and very anxious to see him: a groom on horseback had brought the message. The old man had led a life of indifferent repute, and that probably made him the more anxious to see my father, who proceeded at once to get ready for the uninviting journey.
Since my brother Tom's departure, I had become yet more of a companion to my father; and now when I saw him preparing to set out, I begged to be allowed to go with him. His little black mare had a daughter, not unused to the saddle. She was almost twice her mother's size, and none the less clumsy that she was chiefly employed upon the farm. Still she had a touch of the roadster in her, and if not capable of elegant motion, could get over the ground well enough, with a sort of speedy slouch, while, as was of far more consequence on an expedition like the present, she was of great strength, and could go through the wreaths, Andrew said, like a red-hot iron. My father hesitated, looked out at the sky, and hesitated still.
"I hardly know what to say, Ranald. If I were sure of the weather—but I am very doubtful. However, if it should break up, we can stay there all night. Yes.—Here, Allister; run and tell Andrew to saddle both the mares, and bring them down directly.—Make haste with your dinner, Ranald."
Delighted at the prospect, I did make haste; the meal was soon over, and Kirsty expended her utmost care in clothing me for the journey, which would certainly be a much longer one in regard of time than of space. In half an hour we were all mounted and on our way—the groom, who had so lately traversed the road, a few yards in front.
I have already said, perhaps more than once, that my father took comparatively little notice of us as children, beyond teaching us of a Sunday, and sometimes of a week-evening in winter, generally after we were in bed. He rarely fondled us, or did anything to supply in that manner the loss of our mother. I believe his thoughts were tenderness itself towards us, but they did not show themselves in ordinary shape: some connecting link was absent. It seems to me now sometimes, that perhaps he was wisely retentive of his feelings, and waited a better time to let them flow. For, ever as we grew older, we drew nearer to my father, or, more properly, my father drew us nearer to him, dropping, by degrees, that reticence which, perhaps, too many parents of character keep up until their children are full grown; and by this time he would converse with me most freely. I presume he had found, or believed he had found me trustworthy, and incapable of repeating unwisely any remarks he made. But much as he hated certain kinds of gossip, he believed that indifference to your neighbour and his affairs was worse. He said everything depended on the spirit in which men spoke of each other; that much of what was called gossip was only a natural love of biography, and, if kindly, was better than blameless; that the greater part of it was objectionable, simply because it was not loving, only curious; while a portion was amongst the wickedest things on earth, because it had for its object to believe and make others believe the worst. I mention these opinions of my father, lest anyone should misjudge the fact of his talking to me as he did.
Our horses made very slow progress. It was almost nowhere possible to trot, and we had to plod on, step by step. This made it more easy to converse.
"The country looks dreary, doesn't it, Ranald?" he said.
"Just like as if everything was dead, father," I replied.
"If the sun were to cease shining altogether, what do you think would happen?"
I thought a bit, but was not prepared to answer, when my father spoke again.
"What makes the seeds grow, Ranald—the oats, and the wheat, and the barley?"
"The rain, father," I said, with half-knowledge.
"Well, if there were no sun, the vapours would not rise to make clouds. What rain there was already in the sky would come down in snow or lumps of ice. The earth would grow colder and colder, and harder and harder, until at last it went sweeping through the air, one frozen mass, as hard as stone, without a green leaf or a living creature upon it."
"How dreadful to think of, father!" I said. "That would be frightful."
"Yes, my boy. It is the sun that is the life of the world. Not only does he make the rain rise to fall on the seeds in the earth, but even that would be useless, if he did not make them warm as well—and do something else to them besides which we cannot understand. Farther down into the earth than any of the rays of light can reach, he sends other rays we cannot see, which go searching about in it, like long fingers; and wherever they find and touch a seed, the life that is in that seed begins to talk to itself, as it were, and straightway begins to grow. Out of the dark earth he thus brings all the lovely green things of the spring, and clothes the world with beauty, and sets the waters running, and the birds singing, and the lambs bleating, and the children gathering daisies and butter-cups, and the gladness overflowing in all hearts—very different from what we see now—isn't it, Ranald?"
"Yes, father; a body can hardly believe, to look at it now, that the world will ever be like that again."
"But, for as cold and wretched as it looks, the sun has not forsaken it. He has only drawn away from it a little, for good reasons, one of which is that we may learn that we cannot do without him. If he were to go, not one breath more could one of us draw. Horses and men, we should drop down frozen lumps, as hard as stones. Who is the sun's father, Ranald?"
"He hasn't got a father," I replied, hoping for some answer as to a riddle.
"Yes, he has, Ranald: I can prove that. You remember whom the apostle James calls the Father of Lights?"
"Oh yes, of course, father. But doesn't that mean another kind of lights?"
"Yes. But they couldn't be called lights if they were not like the sun. All kinds of lights must come from the Father of Lights. Now the Father of the sun must be like the sun, and, indeed of all material things, the sun is likest to God. We pray to God to shine upon us and give us light. If God did not shine into our hearts, they would be dead lumps of cold. We shouldn't care for anything whatever."
"Then, father, God never stops shining upon us. He wouldn't be like the sun if he did. For even in winter the sun shines enough to keep us alive."
"True, my boy. I am very glad you understand me. In all my experience I have never yet known a man in whose heart I could not find proofs of the shining of the great Sun. It might be a very feeble wintry shine, but still he was there. For a human heart though, it is very dreadful to have a cold, white winter like this inside it, instead of a summer of colour and warmth and light. There's the poor old man we are going to see. They talk of the winter of age: that's all very well, but the heart is not made for winter. A man may have the snow on his roof, and merry children about his hearth; he may have grey hairs on his head, and the very gladness of summer in his bosom. But this old man, I am afraid, feels wintry cold within."
"Then why doesn't the Father of Lights shine more on him and make him warmer?"
"The sun is shining as much on the earth in the winter as in the summer: why is the earth no warmer?"
"Because," I answered, calling up what little astronomy I knew, "that part of it is turned away from the sun."
"Just so. Then if a man turns himself away from the Father of Lights—the great Sun—how can he be warmed?"
"But the earth can't help it, father."
"But the man can, Ranald. He feels the cold, and he knows he can turn to the light. Even this poor old man knows it now. God is shining on him—a wintry way—or he would not feel the cold at all; he would be only a lump of ice, a part of the very winter itself. The good of what warmth God gives him is, that he feels cold. If he were all cold, he couldn't feel cold."
"Does he want to turn to the Sun, then, father?"
"I do not know. I only know that he is miserable because he has not turned to the Sun."
"What will you say to him, father?"
"I cannot tell, my boy. It depends on what I find him thinking. Of all things, my boy, keep your face to the Sun. You can't shine of yourself, you can't be good of yourself, but God has made you able to turn to the Sun whence all goodness and all shining comes. God's children may be very naughty, but they must be able to turn towards him. The Father of Lights is the Father of every weakest little baby of a good thought in us, as well as of the highest devotion of martyrdom. If you turn your face to the Sun, my boy, your soul will, when you come to die, feel like an autumn, with the golden fruits of the earth hanging in rich clusters ready to be gathered—not like a winter. You may feel ever so worn, but you will not feel withered. You will die in peace, hoping for the spring—and such a spring!"
Thus talking, in the course of two hours or so we arrived at the dwelling of the old laird.
How dreary the old house looked as we approached it through the gathering darkness! All the light appeared to come from the snow which rested wherever it could lie—on roofs and window ledges and turrets. Even on the windward walls, every little roughness sustained its own frozen patch, so that their grey was spotted all over with whiteness. Not a glimmer shone from the windows.
"Nobody lives there, father," I said,—"surely?"
"It does not look very lively," he answered.
The house stood upon a bare knoll. There was not a tree within sight. Rugged hills arose on all sides of it. Not a sound was heard but the moan of an occasional gust of wind. There was a brook, but it lay frozen beneath yards of snow. For miles in any direction those gusts might wander without shaking door or window, or carrying with them a puff of smoke from any hearth. We were crossing the yard at the back of the house, towards the kitchen-door, for the front door had not been opened for months, when we recognized the first sign of life. That was only the low of a bullock. As we dismounted on a few feet of rough pavement which had been swept clear, an old woman came to the door, and led us into a dreary parlour without even a fire to welcome us.
I learned afterwards that the laird, from being a spendthrift in his youth, had become a miser in his age, and that every household arrangement was on the narrowest scale. From wasting righteous pounds, he had come to scraping unrighteous farthings.
After we had remained standing for some time, the housekeeper returned, and invited my father to go to the laird's room. As they went, he requested her to take me to the kitchen, which, after conducting him, she did. The sight of the fire, although it was of the smallest, was most welcome. She laid a few more peats upon it, and encouraged them to a blaze, remarking, with a sidelong look: "We daren't do this, you see, sir, if the laird was about. The honest man would call it waste."
"Is he dying?" I asked, for the sake of saying something; but she only shook her head for reply, and, going to a press at the other end of the large, vault-like kitchen, brought me some milk in a basin, and some oatcake upon a platter, saying,
"It's not my house, you see, or I would have something better to set before the minister's son."
I was glad of any food however, and it was well for me that I ate heartily. I had got quite warm also before my father stepped into the kitchen, very solemn, and stood up with his back to the fire. The old woman set him a chair, but he neither sat down nor accepted the refreshment which she humbly offered him.
"We must be going," he objected, "for it looks stormy, and the sooner we set out the better."
"I'm sorry I can't ask you to stop the night," she said, "for I couldn't make you comfortable. There's nothing fit to offer you in the house, and there's not a bed that's been slept in for I don't know how long."
"Never mind," said my father cheerfully. "The moon is up already, and we shall get home I trust before the snow begins to fall. Will you tell the man to get the horses out?"
When she returned from taking the message, she came up to my father and said, in a loud whisper,
"Is he in a bad way, sir?"
"He is dying," answered my father.
"I know that," she returned. "He'll be gone before the morning. But that's not what I meant. Is he in a bad way for the other world? That's what I meant, sir."
"Well, my good woman, after a life like his, we are only too glad to remember what our Lord told us—not to judge. I do think he is ashamed and sorry for his past life. But it's not the wrong he has done in former time that stands half so much in his way as his present fondness for what he counts his own. It seems like to break his heart to leave all his little bits of property—particularly the money he has saved; and yet he has some hope that Jesus Christ will be kind enough to pardon him. I am afraid he will find himself very miserable though, when he has not one scrap left to call his own—not a pocket-knife even."
"It's dreadful to think of him flying through the air on a night like this," said she.
"My good woman," returned my father, "we know nothing about where or how the departed spirit exists after it has left the body. But it seems to me just as dreadful to be without God in the world, as to be without him anywhere else. Let us pray for him that God may be with him wherever he is."
So saying, my father knelt down, and we beside him, and he prayed earnestly to God for the old man. Then we rose, mounted our horses, and rode away.
We were only about halfway home, when the clouds began to cover the moon, and the snow began to fall. Hitherto we had got on pretty well, for there was light enough to see the track, feeble as it was. Now, however, we had to keep a careful lookout. We pressed our horses, and they went bravely, but it was slow work at the best. It got darker and darker, for the clouds went on gathering, and the snow was coming down in huge dull flakes. Faster and thicker they came, until at length we could see nothing of the road before us, and were compelled to leave all to the wisdom of our horses. My father, having great confidence in his own little mare, which had carried him through many a doubtful and difficult place, rode first. I followed close behind. He kept on talking to me very cheerfully—I have thought since—to prevent me from getting frightened. But I had not a thought of fear. To be with my father was to me perfect safety. He was in the act of telling me how, on more occasions than one, Missy had got him through places where the road was impassable, by walking on the tops of the walls, when all at once both our horses plunged into a gulf of snow. The more my mare struggled, the deeper we sank in it. For a moment I thought it was closing over my head.
"Father! father!" I shouted.
"Don't be frightened, my boy," cried my father, his voice seeming to come from far away. "We are in God's hands. I can't help you now, but as soon as Missy has got quieter, I shall come to you. I think I know whereabouts we are. We've dropped right off the road. You're not hurt, are you?"
"Not in the least," I answered. "I was only frightened."
A few moments more, and my mare lay or rather stuck quiet, with her neck and head thrown back, and her body deep in the snow. I put up my hands to feel. It rose above my head farther than I could reach. I got clear of the stirrups and scrambled up, first on my knees, and then on my feet. Standing thus upon the saddle, again I stretched my hands above my head, but still the broken wall of snow ascended above my reach. I could see nothing of my father, but I heard him talking to Missy. My mare soon began floundering again, so that I tumbled about against the sides of the hole, and grew terrified lest I should bring the snow down. I therefore cowered upon the mare's back until she was quiet again. "Woa! Quiet, my lass!" I heard my father saying, and it seemed his Missy was more frightened than mine.
My fear was now quite gone, and I felt much inclined to laugh at the fun of the misadventure. I had as yet no idea of how serious a thing it might be. Still I had sense enough to see that something must be done—but what? I saw no way of getting out of the hole except by trampling down the snow upon the back of my poor mare, and that I could not think of; while I doubted much whether my father even could tell in what direction to turn for help or shelter.
Finding our way home, even if we got free, seemed out of the question. Again my mare began plunging violently, and this time I found myself thrown against some hard substance. I thrust my hand through the snow, and felt what I thought the stones of one of the dry walls common to the country. I might clear away enough of the snow to climb upon that; but then what next—it was so dark?
"Ranald!" cried my father; "how do you get on?"
"Much the same, father," I answered.
"I'm out of the wreath," he returned. "We've come through on the other side. You are better where you are I suspect, however. The snow is warmer than the air. It is beginning to blow. Pull your feet out and get right upon the mare's back."
"That's just where I am, father—lying on her back, and pretty comfortable," I rejoined.
All this time the snow was falling thick. If it went on like this, I should be buried before morning, and the fact that the wind was rising added to the danger of it. We were at the wrong end of the night too.
"I'm in a kind of ditch, I think, father," I cried—the place we fell off on one side and a stone wall on the other."
"That can hardly be, or I shouldn't have got out," he returned. "But now I've got Missy quiet, I'll come to you. I must get you out, I see, or you will be snowed up. Woa, Missy! Good mare! Stand still."
The next moment he gave a joyous exclamation.
"What is it, father?" I cried.
"It's not a stone wall; it's a peat-stack. That is good."
"I don't see what good it is. We can't light a fire."
"No, my boy; but where there's a peat-stack, there's probably a house."
He began uttering a series of shouts at the top of his voice, listening between for a response. This lasted a good while. I began to get very cold.
"I'm nearly frozen, father," I said, "and what's to become of the poor mare—she's got no clothes on?"
"I'll get you out, my boy; and then at least you will be able to move about a little."
I heard him shovelling at the snow with his hands and feet.
"I have got to the corner of the stack, and as well as I can judge you must be just round it," he said.
"Your voice is close to me," I answered.
"I've got a hold of one of the mare's ears," he said next. "I won't try to get her out until I get you off her."
I put out my hand, and felt along the mare's neck. What a joy it was to catch my father's hand through the darkness and the snow! He grasped mine and drew me towards him, then got me by the arm and began dragging me through the snow. The mare began plunging again, and by her struggles rather assisted my father. In a few moments he had me in his arms.
"Thank God!" he said, as he set me down against the peat-stack. "Stand there. A little farther. Keep well off for fear she hurt you. She must fight her way out now."
He went back to the mare, and went on clearing away the snow. Then I could hear him patting and encouraging her. Next I heard a great blowing and scrambling, and at last a snort and the thunder of hoofs.
"Woa! woa! Gently! gently!—She's off!" cried my father.
Her mother gave one snort, and away she went, thundering after her. But their sounds were soon quenched in the snow.
"There's a business!" said my father. "I'm afraid the poor things will only go farther to fare the worse. We are as well without them, however; and if they should find their way home, so much the better for us. They might have kept us a little warmer though. We must fight the cold as we best can for the rest of the night, for it would only be folly to leave the spot before it is light enough to see where we are going."
It came into my mind suddenly how I had burrowed in the straw to hide myself after running from Dame Shand's. But whether that or the thought of burrowing in the peat-stack came first, I cannot tell. I turned and felt whether I could draw out a peat. With a little loosening I succeeded.
"Father," I said, "couldn't we make a hole in the peat-stalk, and build ourselves in?"
"A capital idea, my boy!" he answered, with a gladness in his voice which I venture to attribute in part to his satisfaction at finding that I had some practical sense in me. "We'll try it at once."
"I've got two or three out already," I said, for I had gone on pulling, and it was easy enough after one had been started.
"We must take care we don't bring down the whole stack though," said my father.
"Even then," I returned, "we could build ourselves up in them, and that would be something."
"Right, Ranald! It would be only making houses to our own shape, instead of big enough to move about in—turning crustaceous animals, you know."
"It would be a peat-greatcoat at least," I remarked, pulling away.
"Here," he said, "I will put my stick in under the top row. That will be a sort of lintel to support those above."
He always carried his walking-stick whether he rode or walked.
We worked with a will, piling up the peats a little in front that we might with them build up the door of our cave after we were inside. We got quite merry over it.
"We shall be brought before the magistrates for destruction of property," said my father.
"You'll have to send Andrew to build up the stack again—that's all."
"But I wonder how it is that nobody hears us. How can they have a peat-stack so far from the house?"
"I can't imagine," I said; "except it be to prevent them from burning too many peats. It is more like a trick of the poor laird than anybody else."
Every now and then a few would come down with a rush, and before long we had made a large hole. We left a good thick floor to sit upon.
Creeping in, we commenced building up the entrance. We had not proceeded far, however, before we found that our cave was too small, and that as we should have to remain in it for hours, we must find it very cramped. Therefore, instead of using any more of the peats already pulled out, we finished building up the wall with others fresh drawn from the inside. When at length we had, to the best of our ability, completed our immuring, we sat down to wait for the morning—my father as calm as if he had been seated in his study-chair, and I in a state of condensed delight; for was not this a grand adventure—with my father to share it, and keep it from going too far? He sat with his back leaning against the side of the hole, and I sat between his knees, and leaned against him. His arms were folded round me; and could ever boy be more blessed than I was then? The sense of outside danger; the knowledge that if the wind rose, we might be walled up in snow before the morning; the assurance of present safety and good hope—all made such an impression upon my mind that ever since when any trouble has threatened me, I have invariably turned first in thought to the memory of that harbour of refuge from the storm. There I sat for long hours secure in my father's arms, and knew that the soundless snow was falling thick around us, and marked occasionally the threatening wail of the wind like the cry of a wild beast scenting us from afar.
"This is grand, father," I said.
"You would like better to be at home in bed, wouldn't you?" he asked, trying me.
"No, indeed, I should not," I answered, with more than honesty; for I felt exuberantly happy.
"If only we can keep warm," said my father. "If you should get very cold indeed, you must not lose heart, my man, but think how pleasant it will be when we get home to a good fire and a hot breakfast."
"I think I can bear it all right. I have often been cold enough at school."
"This may be worse. But we need not anticipate evil: that is to send out for the suffering. It is well to be prepared for it, but it is ill to brood over a fancied future of evil. In all my life, my boy—and I should like you to remember what I say—I have never found any trial go beyond what I could bear. In the worst cases of suffering, I think there is help given which those who look on cannot understand, but which enables the sufferer to endure. The last help of that kind is death, which I think is always a blessing, though few people can regard it as such."
I listened with some wonder. Without being able to see that what he said was true, I could yet accept it after a vague fashion.
"This nest which we have made to shelter us," he resumed, "brings to my mind what the Psalmist says about dwelling in the secret place of the Most High. Everyone who will, may there, like the swallow, make himself a nest."
"This can't be very like that, though, surely, father," I ventured to object.
"Why not, my boy?"
"It's not safe enough, for one thing."
"You are right there. Still it is like. It is our place of refuge."
"The cold does get through it, father."
"But it keeps our minds at peace. Even the refuge in God does not always secure us from external suffering. The heart may be quite happy and strong when the hands are benumbed with cold. Yes, the heart even may grow cold with coming death, while the man himself retreats the farther into the secret place of the Most High, growing more calm and hopeful as the last cold invades the house of his body. I believe that all troubles come to drive us into that refuge—that secret place where alone we can be safe. You will, when you go out into the world, my boy, find that most men not only do not believe this, but do not believe that you believe it. They regard it at best as a fantastic weakness, fit only for sickly people. But watch how the strength of such people, their calmness and common sense, fares when the grasp of suffering lays hold upon them. It was a sad sight—that abject hopeless misery I saw this afternoon. If his mind had been an indication of the reality, one must have said that there was no God—no God at least that would have anything to do with him. The universe as reflected in the tarnished mirror of his soul, was a chill misty void, through which blew the moaning wind of an unknown fate. As near as ever I saw it, that man was without God and without hope in the world. All who have done the mightiest things—I do not mean the showiest things—all that are like William of Orange—the great William, I mean, not our King William—or John Milton, or William Penn, or any other of the cloud of witnesses spoken of in the Epistle to the Hebrews—all the men I say who have done the mightiest things, have not only believed that there was this refuge in God, but have themselves more or less entered into the secret place of the Most High. There only could they have found strength to do their mighty deeds. They were able to do them because they knew God wanted them to do them, that he was on their side, or rather they were on his side, and therefore safe, surrounded by God on every side. My boy, do the will of God—that is, what you know or believe to be right, and fear nothing."
I never forgot the lesson. But my readers must not think that my father often talked like this. He was not at all favourable to much talk about religion. He used to say that much talk prevented much thought, and talk without thought was bad. Therefore it was for the most part only upon extraordinary occasions, of which this is an example, that he spoke of the deep simplicities of that faith in God which was the very root of his conscious life.
He was silent after this utterance, which lasted longer than I have represented, although unbroken, I believe, by any remark of mine. Full of inward repose, I fell asleep in his arms.
When I awoke I found myself very cold. Then I became aware that my father was asleep, and for the first time began to be uneasy. It was not because of the cold: that was not at all unendurable; it was that while the night lay awful in white silence about me, while the wind was moaning outside, and blowing long thin currents through the peat walls around me, while our warm home lay far away, and I could not tell how many hours of cold darkness had yet to pass before we could set out to find it,—it was not all these things together, but that, in the midst of all these, I was awake and my father slept. I could easily have waked him, but I was not selfish enough for that: I sat still and shivered and felt very dreary. Then the last words of my father began to return upon me, and, with a throb of relief, the thought awoke in my mind that although my father was asleep, the great Father of us both, he in whose heart lay that secret place of refuge, neither slumbered nor slept. And now I was able to wait in patience, with an idea, if not a sense of the present care of God, such as I had never had before. When, after some years, my father was taken from us, the thought of this night came again and again, and I would say in my heart: "My father sleeps that I may know the better that The Father wakes."
At length he stirred. The first sign of his awaking was, that he closed again the arms about me which had dropped by his sides as he slept.
"I'm so glad you're awake, father," I said, speaking first.
"Have you been long awake then?"
"Not so very long, but I felt lonely without you."
"Are you very cold? I feel rather chilly."
So we chatted away for a while.
"I wonder if it is nearly day yet. I do not in the least know how long we have slept. I wonder if my watch is going. I forgot to wind it up last night. If it has stopped I shall know it is near daylight."
He held his watch to his ear: alas! it was ticking vigorously. He felt for the keyhole, and wound it up. After that we employed ourselves in repeating as many of the metrical psalms and paraphrases of Scripture as we could recollect, and this helped away a good part of the weary time.
But it went very slowly, and I was growing so cold that I could hardly bear it.
"I'm afraid you feel very cold, Ranald," said my father, folding me closer in his arms. "You must try not to go to sleep again, for that would be dangerous now. I feel more cramped than cold."
As he said this, he extended his legs and threw his head back, to get rid of the uneasiness by stretching himself. The same moment, down came a shower of peats upon our heads and bodies, and when I tried to move, I found myself fixed. I could not help laughing.
"Father," I cried, as soon as I could speak, "you're like Samson: you've brought down the house upon us."
"So I have, my boy. It was very thoughtless of me. I don't know what we are to do now."
"Can you move, father? I can't," I said.
"I can move my legs, but I'm afraid to move even a toe in my boot for fear of bringing down another avalanche of peats. But no—there's not much danger of that: they are all down already, for I feel the snow on my face."
With hands and feet my father struggled, but could not do much, for I lay against him under a great heap. His struggles made an opening sideways however.
"Father! father! shout," I cried. "I see a light somewhere; and I think it is moving."
We shouted as loud as we could, and then lay listening. My heart beat so that I was afraid I should not hear any reply that might come. But the next moment it rang through the frosty air.
"It's Turkey! That's Turkey, father!" I cried. "I know his shout. He makes it go farther than anybody else.—Turkey! Turkey!" I shrieked, almost weeping with delight.
Again Turkey's cry rang through the darkness, and the light drew wavering nearer.
"Mind how you step, Turkey," cried my father. "There's a hole you may tumble into."
"It wouldn't hurt him much in the snow," I said.
"Perhaps not, but he would probably lose his light, and that we can hardly afford."
"Shout again," cried Turkey. "I can't make out where you are."
My father shouted.
"Am I coming nearer to you now?"
"I can hardly say. I cannot see well. Are you going along the road?"
"Yes. Can't you come to me?"
"Not yet. We can't get out. We're upon your right hand, in a peat-stack."
"Oh! I know the peat-stack. I'll be with you in a moment."
He did not however find it so easily as he had expected, the peats being covered with snow. My father gave up trying to free himself and took to laughing instead at the ridiculous situation in which we were about to be discovered. He kept directing Turkey, however, who at length after some disappearances which made us very anxious about the lantern, caught sight of the stack, and walked straight towards it. Now first we saw that he was not alone, but accompanied by the silent Andrew.
"Where are you, sir?" asked Turkey, throwing the light of the lantern over the ruin.
"Buried in the peats," answered my father, laughing. "Come and get us out."
Turkey strode up to the heap, and turning the light down into it said,
"I didn't know it had been raining peats, sir."
"The peats didn't fall quite so far as the snow, Turkey, or they would have made a worse job of it," answered my father.
Meantime Andrew and Turkey were both busy; and in a few moments we stood upon our feet, stiff with cold and cramped with confinement, but merry enough at heart.
"What brought you out to look for us?" asked my father.
"I heard Missy whinnying at the stable-door," said Andrew. "When I saw she was alone, I knew something had happened, and waked Turkey. We only stopped to run to the manse for a drop of whisky to bring with us, and set out at once."
"What o'clock is it now?" asked my father.
"About one o'clock," answered Andrew.
"One o'clock!" thought I. "What a time we should have had to wait!"
"Have you been long in finding us?"
"Only about an hour."
"Then the little mare must have had great trouble in getting home. You say the other was not with her?"
"No, sir. She's not made her appearance."
"Then if we don't find her, she will be dead before morning. But what shall we do with you, Ranald? Turkey had better go home with you first."
"Please let me go too," I said.
"Are you able to walk?"
"Quite—or at least I shall be, after my legs come to themselves a bit."
Turkey produced a bottle of milk which he had brought for me, and Andrew produced the little flask of whisky which Kirsty had sent; and my father having taken a little of the latter, while I emptied my bottle, we set out to look for young Missy.
"Where are we?" asked my father.
Turkey told him.
"How comes it that nobody heard our shouting, then?"
"You know, sir," answered Turkey, "the old man is as deaf as a post, and I dare say his people were all fast asleep."
The snow was falling only in a few large flakes now, which sank through the air like the moultings of some lovely bird of heaven. The moon had come out again, and the white world lay around us in lovely light. A good deal of snow had fallen while we lay in the peats, but we could yet trace the track of the two horses. We followed it a long way through the little valley into which we had dropped from the side of the road. We came to more places than one where they had been floundering together in a snow-wreath, but at length reached the spot where one had parted from the other. When we had traced one of the tracks to the road, we concluded it was Missy's, and returned to the other. But we had not followed it very far before we came upon the poor mare lying upon her back in a deep runnel, in which the snow was very soft. She had put her forefeet in it as she galloped heedlessly along, and tumbled right over. The snow had yielded enough to let the banks get a hold of her, and she lay helpless. Turkey and Andrew, however, had had the foresight to bring spades with them and a rope, and they set to work at once, my father taking a turn now and then, and I holding the lantern, which was all but useless now in the moonlight. It took more than an hour to get the poor thing on her legs again, but when she was up, it was all they could do to hold her. She was so wild with cold, and with delight at feeling her legs under her once more, that she would have broken loose again, and galloped off as recklessly as ever. They set me on her back, and with my father on one side and Turkey on the other, and Andrew at her head, I rode home in great comfort. It was another good hour before we arrived, and right glad were we to see through the curtains of the parlour the glow of the great fire which Kirsty had kept up for us. She burst out crying when we made our appearance.
A Solitary Chapter
During all that winter I attended the evening school and assisted the master. I confess, however, it was not by any means so much for the master as to be near Elsie Duff, of whom I now thought many times an hour. Her sweet face grew more and more dear to me. When I pointed out an error in her work, or suggested a better mode of working, it would flush like the heart of a white rose, and eagerly she would set herself to rectification or improvement, her whole manner a dumb apology for what could be a fault in no eyes but her own. It was this sweetness that gained upon me: at length her face was almost a part of my consciousness. I suppose my condition was what people would call being in love with her; but I never thought of that; I only thought of her. Nor did I ever dream of saying a word to her on the subject. I wished nothing other than as it was. To think about her all day, so gently that it never disturbed Euclid or Livy; to see her at night, and get near her now and then, sitting on the same form with her as I explained something to her on the slate or in her book; to hear her voice, and look into her tender eyes, was all that I desired. It never occurred to me that things could not go on so; that a change must come; that as life cannot linger in the bud, but is compelled by the sunshine and air into the flower, so life would go on and on, and things would change, and the time blossom into something else, and my love find itself set out-of-doors in the midst of strange plants and a new order of things.
When school was over, I walked home with her—not alone, for Turkey was always on the other side. I had not a suspicion that Turkey's admiration of Elsie could ever come into collision with mine. We joined in praising her, but my admiration ever found more words than Turkey's, and I thought my love to her was greater than his.
We seldom went into her grandmother's cottage, for she did not make us welcome. After we had taken her home we generally repaired to Turkey's mother, with whom we were sure of a kind reception. She was a patient diligent woman, who looked as if she had nearly done with life, and had only to gather up the crumbs of it. I have often wondered since, what was her deepest thought—whether she was content to be unhappy, or whether she lived in hope of some blessedness beyond. It is marvellous with how little happiness some people can get through the world. Surely they are inwardly sustained with something even better than joy.
"Did you ever hear my mother sing?" asked Turkey, as we sat together over her little fire, on one of these occasions.
"No. I should like very much," I answered.
The room was lighted only by a little oil-lamp, for there was no flame to the fire of peats and dried oak-bark.
"She sings such queer ballads as you never heard," said Turkey. "Give us one, mother; do."
She yielded, and, in a low chanting voice, sang something like this:—
Up cam' the waves o' the tide wi' a whush, And back gaed the pebbles wi' a whurr, Whan the king's ae son cam' walking i' the hush, To hear the sea murmur and murr.
The half mune was risin' the waves abune, An' a glimmer o' cauld weet licht Cam' ower the water straucht frae the mune, Like a path across the nicht.
What's that, an' that, far oot i' the grey Atwixt the mune and the land? It's the bonny sea-maidens at their play— Haud awa', king's son, frae the strand.
Ae rock stud up wi' a shadow at its foot: The king's son stepped behind: The merry sea-maidens cam' gambolling oot, Combin' their hair i' the wind.
O merry their laugh when they felt the land Under their light cool feet! Each laid her comb on the yellow sand, And the gladsome dance grew fleet.
But the fairest she laid her comb by itsel' On the rock where the king's son lay. He stole about, and the carven shell He hid in his bosom away.
And he watched the dance till the clouds did gloom, And the wind blew an angry tune: One after one she caught up her comb, To the sea went dancin' doon.
But the fairest, wi' hair like the mune in a clud, She sought till she was the last. He creepin' went and watchin' stud, And he thought to hold her fast.
She dropped at his feet without motion or heed; He took her, and home he sped.— All day she lay like a withered seaweed, On a purple and gowden bed.
But at night whan the wind frae the watery bars Blew into the dusky room, She opened her een like twa settin' stars, And back came her twilight bloom.
The king's son knelt beside her bed: She was his ere a month had passed; And the cold sea-maiden he had wed Grew a tender wife at last.
And all went well till her baby was born, And then she couldna sleep; She would rise and wander till breakin' morn, Hark-harkin' the sound o' the deep.
One night when the wind was wailing about, And the sea was speckled wi' foam, From room to room she went in and out And she came on her carven comb.
She twisted her hair with eager hands, She put in the comb with glee: She's out and she's over the glittering sands, And away to the moaning sea.
One cry came back from far away: He woke, and was all alone. Her night robe lay on the marble grey, And the cold sea-maiden was gone.
Ever and aye frae first peep o' the moon, Whan the wind blew aff o' the sea, The desert shore still up and doon Heavy at heart paced he.
But never more came the maidens to play From the merry cold-hearted sea; He heard their laughter far out and away, But heavy at heart paced he.
I have modernized the ballad—indeed spoiled it altogether, for I have made up this version from the memory of it—with only, I fear, just a touch here and there of the original expression.
"That's what comes of taking what you have no right to," said Turkey, in whom the practical had ever the upper hand of the imaginative.
As we walked home together I resumed the subject.
"I think you're too hard on the king's son," I said. "He couldn't help falling in love with the mermaid."
"He had no business to steal her comb, and then run away with herself," said Turkey.
"She was none the worse for it," said I.
"Who told you that?" he retorted. "I don't think the girl herself would have said so. It's not every girl that would care to marry a king's son. She might have had a lover of her own down in the sea. At all events the prince was none the better for it."
"But the song says she made a tender wife," I objected.
"She couldn't help herself. She made the best of it. I dare say he wasn't a bad sort of a fellow, but he was no gentleman."
"Turkey!" I exclaimed. "He was a prince!"
"I know that."
"Then he must have been a gentleman."
"I don't know that. I've read of a good many princes who did things I should be ashamed to do."
"But you're not a prince, Turkey," I returned, in the low endeavour to bolster up the wrong with my silly logic.
"No. Therefore if I were to do what was rude and dishonest, people would say: 'What could you expect of a ploughboy?' A prince ought to be just so much better bred than a ploughboy. I would scorn to do what that prince did. What's wrong in a ploughboy can't be right in a prince, Ranald. Or else right is only right sometimes; so that right may be wrong and wrong may be right, which is as much as to say there is no right and wrong; and if there's no right and wrong, the world's an awful mess, and there can't be any God, for a God would never have made it like that."
"Well, Turkey, you know best. I can't help thinking the prince was not so much to blame, though."
"You see what came of it—misery."
"Perhaps he would rather have had the misery and all together than none of it."
"That's for him to settle. But he must have seen he was wrong, before he had done wandering by the sea like that."
"Well now, Turkey, what would you have done yourself, suppose the beautifulest of them all had laid her comb down within an inch of where you were standing—and never saw you, you know?"
Turkey thought for a moment before answering.
"I'm supposing you fell in love with her at first sight, you know," I added.
"Well, I'm sure I should not have kept the comb, even if I had taken it just to get a chance of speaking to her. And I can't help fancying if he had behaved like a gentleman, and let her go without touching her the first time, she might have come again; and if he had married her at last of her own free will, she would not have run away from him, let the sea have kept calling her ever so much."
The next evening, I looked for Elsie as usual, but did not see her. How blank and dull the schoolroom seemed! Still she might arrive any moment. But she did not come. I went through my duties wearily, hoping ever for the hour of release. I could see well enough that Turkey was anxious too. The moment school was over, we hurried away, almost without a word, to the cottage. There we found her weeping. Her grandmother had died suddenly. She clung to Turkey, and seemed almost to forget my presence. But I thought nothing of that. Had the case been mine, I too should have clung to Turkey from faith in his help and superior wisdom.
There were two or three old women in the place. Turkey went and spoke to them, and then took Elsie home to his mother. Jamie was asleep, and they would not wake him.
How it was arranged, I forget, but both Elsie and Jamie lived for the rest of the winter with Turkey's mother. The cottage was let, and the cow taken home by their father. Before summer Jamie had got a place in a shop in the village, and then Elsie went back to her mother.
An Evening Visit
I now saw much less of Elsie; but I went with Turkey, as often as I could, to visit her at her father's cottage. The evenings we spent there are amongst the happiest hours in my memory. One evening in particular appears to stand out as a type of the whole. I remember every point in the visit. I think it must have been almost the last. We set out as the sun was going down on an evening in the end of April, when the nightly frosts had not yet vanished. The hail was dancing about us as we started; the sun was disappearing in a bank of tawny orange cloud; the night would be cold and dark and stormy; but we cared nothing for that: a conflict with the elements always added to the pleasure of any undertaking then. It was in the midst of another shower of hail, driven on the blasts of a keen wind, that we arrived at the little cottage. It had been built by Duff himself to receive his bride, and although since enlarged, was still a very little house. It had a foundation of stone, but the walls were of turf. He had lined it with boards, however, and so made it warmer and more comfortable than most of the labourers' dwellings. When we entered, a glowing fire of peat was on the hearth, and the pot with the supper hung over it. Mrs. Duff was spinning, and Elsie, by the light of a little oil lamp suspended against the wall, was teaching her youngest brother to read. Whatever she did, she always seemed in my eyes to do it better than anyone else; and to see her under the lamp, with one arm round the little fellow who stood leaning against her, while the other hand pointed with a knitting-needle to the letters of the spelling-book which lay on her knee, was to see a lovely picture. The mother did not rise from her spinning, but spoke a kindly welcome, while Elsie got up, and without approaching us, or saying more than a word or two, set chairs for us by the fire, and took the little fellow away to put him to bed.
"It's a cold night," said Mrs. Duff. "The wind seems to blow through me as I sit at my wheel. I wish my husband would come home."
"He'll be suppering his horses," said Turkey. "I'll just run across and give him a hand, and that'll bring him in the sooner."
"Thank you, Turkey," said Mrs. Duff as he vanished.
"He's a fine lad," she remarked, much in the same phrase my father used when speaking of him.
"There's nobody like Turkey," I said.
"Indeed, I think you're right there, Ranald. A better-behaved lad doesn't step. He'll do something to distinguish himself some day. I shouldn't wonder if he went to college, and wagged his head in a pulpit yet."
The idea of Turkey wagging his head in a pulpit made me laugh.
"Wait till you see," resumed Mrs. Duff, somewhat offended at my reception of her prophecy. "Folk will hear of him yet."
"I didn't mean he couldn't be a minister, Mrs. Duff. But I don't think he will take to that."
Here Elsie came back, and lifting the lid of the pot, examined the state of its contents. I got hold of her hand, but for the first time she withdrew it. I did not feel hurt, for she did it very gently. Then she began to set the white deal table in the middle of the floor, and by the time she had put the plates and spoons upon it, the water in the pot was boiling, and she began to make the porridge, at which she was judged to be first-rate—in my mind, equal to our Kirsty. By the time it was ready, her father and Turkey came in. James Duff said grace, and we sat down to our supper. The wind was blowing hard outside, and every now and then the hail came in deafening rattles against the little windows, and, descending the wide chimney, danced on the floor about the hearth; but not a thought of the long, stormy way between us and home interfered with the enjoyment of the hour.
After supper, which was enlivened by simple chat about the crops and the doings on the farm, James turned to me, and said:
"Haven't you got a song or a ballad to give us, Ranald? I know you're always getting hold of such things."
I had expected this; for, every time I went, I tried to have something to repeat to them. As I could not sing, this was the nearest way in which I might contribute to the evening's entertainment. Elsie was very fond of ballads, and I could hardly please her better than by bringing a new one with me. But in default of that, an old one or a story would be welcomed. My reader must remember that there were very few books to be had then in that part of the country, and therefore any mode of literature was precious. The schoolmaster was the chief source from which I derived my provision of this sort. On the present occasion, I was prepared with a ballad of his. I remember every word of it now, and will give it to my readers, reminding them once more how easy it is to skip it, if they do not care for that kind of thing.
"Bonny lassie, rosy lassie, Ken ye what is care? Had ye ever a thought, lassie, Made yer hertie sair?"
Johnnie said it, Johnnie luikin' Into Jeannie's face; Seekin' in the garden hedge For an open place.
"Na," said Jeannie, saftly smilin', "Nought o' care ken I; For they say the carlin' Is better passit by."
"Licht o' hert ye are, Jeannie, As o' foot and ban'! Lang be yours sic answer To ony spierin' man."
"I ken what ye wad hae, sir, Though yer words are few; Ye wad hae me aye as careless, Till I care for you."
"Dinna mock me, Jeannie, lassie, Wi' yer lauchin' ee; For ye hae nae notion What gaes on in me."
"No more I hae a notion O' what's in yonder cairn; I'm no sae pryin', Johnnie, It's none o' my concern."
"Well, there's ae thing, Jeannie, Ye canna help, my doo— Ye canna help me carin' Wi' a' my hert for you."
Johnnie turned and left her, Listed for the war; In a year cam' limpin' Hame wi' mony a scar.
Wha was that was sittin' Wan and worn wi' care? Could it be his Jeannie Aged and alter'd sair?
Her goon was black, her eelids Reid wi' sorrow's dew: Could she in a twalmonth Be wife and widow too?
Jeannie's hert gaed wallop, Ken 't him whan he spak': "I thocht that ye was deid, Johnnie: Is't yersel' come back?"
"O Jeannie, are ye, tell me, Wife or widow or baith? To see ye lost as I am, I wad be verra laith,"
"I canna be a widow That wife was never nane; But gin ye will hae me, Noo I will be ane."
His crutch he flang it frae him, Forgetful o' war's harms; But couldna stan' withoot it, And fell in Jeannie's arms.
"That's not a bad ballad," said James Duff. "Have you a tune it would go to, Elsie?"
Elsie thought a little, and asked me to repeat the first verse. Then she sung it out clear and fair to a tune I had never heard before.
"That will do splendidly, Elsie," I said. "I will write it out for you, and then you will be able to sing it all the next time I come."
She made me no answer. She and Turkey were looking at each other, and did not hear me. James Duff began to talk to me. Elsie was putting away the supper-things. In a few minutes I missed her and Turkey, and they were absent for some time. They did not return together, but first Turkey, and Elsie some minutes after. As the night was now getting quite stormy, James Duff counselled our return, and we obeyed. But little either Turkey or I cared for wind or hail.
I saw Elsie at church most Sundays; but she was far too attentive and modest ever to give me even a look. Sometimes I had a word with her when we came out, but my father expected us to walk home with him; and I generally saw Turkey walk away with her.
A Break in my Story
I am now rapidly approaching the moment at which I said I should bring this history to an end—the moment, namely, when I became aware that my boyhood was behind me.
I left home this summer for the first time, and followed my brother Tom to the grammar school in the county-town, in order afterwards to follow him to the University. There was so much of novelty and expectation in the change, that I did not feel the separation from my father and the rest of my family much at first. That came afterwards. For the time, the pleasure of a long ride on the top of the mail-coach, with a bright sun and a pleasant breeze, the various incidents connected with changing horses and starting afresh, and then the outlook for the first peep of the sea, occupied my attention too thoroughly.
I do not care to dwell on my experience at the grammar school. I worked fairly, and got on; but whether I should gain a scholarship remained doubtful enough. Before the time for the examination arrived, I went to spend a week at home. It was a great disappointment to me that I had to return again without seeing Elsie. But it could not be helped. The only Sunday I had there was a stormy day, late in October, and Elsie had a bad cold, as Turkey informed me, and could not be out; while my father had made so many engagements for me, that, with one thing and another, I was not able to go and see her.
Turkey was now doing a man's work on the farm, and stood as high as ever in the estimation of my father and everyone who knew him. He was as great a favourite with Allister and Davie as with myself, and took very much the same place with the former as he had taken with me. I had lost nothing of my regard for him, and he talked to me with the same familiarity as before, urging me to diligence and thoroughness in my studies, pressing upon me that no one had ever done lasting work, "that is," Turkey would say—"work that goes to the making of the world," without being in earnest as to the what and conscientious as to the how.
"I don't want you to try to be a great man," he said once. "You might succeed, and then find out you had failed altogether."
"How could that be, Turkey?" I objected. "A body can't succeed and fail both at once."
"A body might succeed," he replied, "in doing what he wanted to do, and then find out that it was not in the least what he had thought it."
"What rule are you to follow, then, Turkey?" I asked.
"Just the rule of duty," he replied. "What you ought to do, that you must do. Then when a choice comes, not involving duty, you know, choose what you like best."
This is the substance of what he said. If anyone thinks it pedantic, I can only say, he would not have thought so if he had heard it as it was uttered—in the homely forms and sounds of the Scottish tongue.
"Aren't you fit for something better than farm-work yourself, Turkey?" I ventured to suggest, foolishly impelled, I suppose, to try whether I could not give advice too.
"It's my work," said Turkey, in a decisive tone, which left me no room for rejoinder.
This conversation took place in the barn, where Turkey happened to be thrashing alone that morning. In turning the sheaf, or in laying a fresh one, there was always a moment's pause in the din, and then only we talked, so that our conversation was a good deal broken. I had buried myself in the straw, as in days of old, to keep myself warm, and there I lay and looked at Turkey while he thrashed, and thought with myself that his face had grown much more solemn than it used to be. But when he smiled, which was seldom, all the old merry sweetness dawned again. This was the last long talk I ever had with him. The next day I returned for the examination, was happy enough to gain a small scholarship, and entered on my first winter at college.
My father wrote to me once a week or so, and occasionally I had a letter with more ink than matter in it from one of my younger brothers. Tom was now in Edinburgh, in a lawyer's office. I had no correspondence with Turkey. Mr. Wilson wrote to me sometimes, and along with good advice would occasionally send me some verses, but he told me little or nothing of what was going on.
I Learn that I am not a Man
It was a Saturday morning, very early in April, when I climbed the mail-coach to return to my home for the summer; for so the university year is divided in Scotland. The sky was bright, with great fleecy clouds sailing over it, from which now and then fell a shower in large drops. The wind was keen, and I had to wrap myself well in my cloak. But my heart was light, and full of the pleasure of ended and successful labour, of home-going, and the signs which sun and sky gave that the summer was at hand.
Five months had gone by since I last left home, and it had seemed such an age to Davie, that he burst out crying when he saw me. My father received me with a certain still tenderness, which seemed to grow upon him. Kirsty followed Davie's example, and Allister, without saying much, haunted me like my shadow. I saw nothing of Turkey that evening.
In the morning we went to church, of course, and I sat beside the reclining stone warrior, from whose face age had nearly worn the features away. I gazed at him all the time of the singing of the first psalm, and there grew upon me a strange solemnity, a sense of the passing away of earthly things, and a stronger conviction than I had ever had of the need of something that could not pass. This feeling lasted all the time of the service, and increased while I lingered in the church almost alone until my father should come out of the vestry.