BORDER GHOST STORIES
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Tales of Northumbria Magnus Sinclair The Lord Wardens of the Marches, etc.
BORDER GHOST STORIES
AUTHOR OF 'TALES OF NORTHUMBRIA,' 'MAGNUS SINCLAIR' 'THE LORD WARDENS OF THE MARCHES OF ENGLAND AND SCOTLAND,' ETC.
ERSKINE MACDONALD LTD. LONDON, W.C. 1
First published 1919
THE MEMORY OF
SIR WALTER SCOTT
THE TUTELARY GENIUS OF THE BORDERLAND
THESE TALES ARE INSCRIBED BY A
LATTER DAY BORDERER
Certain places, said Stevenson, cry out for a story, and Scott, in any new surroundings, straightway invented an appropriate tale, if there were not already a story or tradition in existence. One might even believe that the place itself tells its own tale to the sympathetic imagination.
Thus Mr. Bligh Bond in his book, The Gate of Remembrance, implies that the whisperings of the genius loci enabled him to make his astonishing discovery of the lost Edgar Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey.
'Multa modis simulacra videt volitantia miris, Et varias audit voces, fruiturque Deorum Colloquio, atque imis Acheronta affatur Avernis.'
The scene of the following ghost stories usually becomes manifest in the text, but it might be mentioned that 'Castle Ichabod' stands for Seaton Delaval, that the 'Lord Warden's Tomb' is a reminiscence of Kirkby Stephen, and that 'The Cry of the Peacock' is a suggestion from the Vale of Mallerstang.
If the ghost is not always visible in the tale, it is at least born of it.
Thus if there be no actual ghost in 'Ill-Steekit Ephraim' or in 'The Blackfriars Wynd' there are at least sufficiently 'ghostly' occurrences.
Again, in 'Apud Corstopitum' Penchrysa is held to haunt the Roman Wall beside the limestone crags; Tynemouth Priory is thought to be revisited by Prior Olaf whenever the wind stays long in the eastern airt, and the 'outbye' moors beside 'The Bower' may now be haunted by the spirit of 'Muckle-Mouthed Meg.'
The stories marked by an asterisk have already been published in the Border Magazine; 'In the Cliff Land of the Danes' appeared originally in the Northern Counties Magazine under the title of 'An Antiquary's Letter' (supposed to have been dictated by John Hall Stevenson of Skelton Castle, author of Crazy Tales, to his friend the Reverend Laurence Sterne at Coxwold), and has been slightly altered, as has also 'The Muniment Room,' which appeared in the Queen and the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle. He desires to thank the various editors concerned and the Northern Newspaper Syndicate for their courtesy in permitting republication.
In his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, written nearly one hundred years ago, Sir Walter Scott says apologetically at the close of the book: 'Even the present fashion of the world seems to be ill-suited for studies of this fantastic nature; and the most ordinary mechanic has learning sufficient to laugh at the figments which in former times were believed by persons far advanced in the deepest knowledge of the age.'
But surely the belief in, and love of ghosts will persist 'as long as the moon endureth,' for fancy, imagination, and conscience combine against materialism, be it never so scientific, and even if the vision of the affrighted criminal be subjective it is a terrible reality to himself.
'What! not see that little boy with the bloody pantaloons?' exclaimed the secret murderer, so much to the horror of his comrade that he requested him, if he had anything on his mind, to make a clear conscience as far as confession could do it. And, further, it is but some seventeen years since the present writer was taken to see a certain nonagenarian—one Bobby Dawson—for some fifty years, if memory serve, whipper-in to the Bilsdale hounds, who related in all good faith how he with his hounds had once hunted a witch in the shape of a hare that escaped by a cundy, or underground drain, into a barn. When Dawson entered, there was the witch in the form of an old woman lying panting on the hay.
Again, the writer has in his possession the copy of an 'Old Charm to make Brave,' which was transcribed by Mr. R. Blakeborough, author of Yorkshire Wit, Character, Folklore, and Customs, from the MS. book of one David Naitby, a Bedale schoolmaster, during the early days of 1800. It may interest the reader to quote a few lines therefrom:
'We hid there (on the mountain top) in the shadow of the moon. We left there an acorn yet green in its cup, We left also a firchatt upon the great stone hurled by Thor; To a fir branch we tied with a fine whang drawn from a bear we slew The wing feather of an eagle which span towards us, Yet it fell not to the earth, we twain caught it, The one by the quill, the other by the feather part.'
After this the tale of 'In the Cliff Land of the Dane' may appear to be not so very improbable.
Once more, the uprising of the thrawn corpse from the coffin in 'Ill-Steekit Ephraim' was narrated to the writer and his companion by a bed-ridden but very intelligent moorland 'wife' some years ago when walking along the Roman Wall beside Hot Bank farm or cottage. Finally, he can still remember his early thrills over strawberries and cream when told of the appearances of 'the Silky' or 'little grey lady' at Denton Hall, which suggested the harsher variant of 'In my Lady's Bedchamber.'
In conclusion, it might perhaps be mentioned that the altar to Sylvanus alluded to in 'Apud Corstopitum' is preserved at Stanhope Rectory on the Wear, and that the writer possesses an altar dedicated—Deo (Mithras), by L. Sentius Castus of the 6th Legion, which was formerly excavated at Rutchester Camp, North Wylam, and is now at Otterburn.
* * * * *
Sir Walter Scott once said that no one had made more use of ghosts than himself, but that he did not believe in them. Another authority expressed his disbelief in them, 'because he had seen too many of them.'
Professor George Sinclair wrote his book, Satan's Invisible World Discovered, to prove 'against the Saducees and Atheists of the present age, that there are Devils, Spirits, Witches, and Apparitions, from Authentic Records, Attestation of Famous Witnesses, and undoubted Verity,' but as, inter alia, he includes in them an account of the 'Strange Pranks plaid by the Devil at Woodstock in England, anno 1649,' it is evident that he simply accepted without any investigation the common hearsay, for it is well known that the Woodstock Devil was none other than the Commissioners' clerk, Giles Sharp, who played these tricks upon his masters.
Modern investigation proceeding on scientific lines and by means of actual experience and experiment, seems to provide an explanation—mental and moral—for manifestations which our ancestors regarded as physical and material.
One need only mention in this connection the writings of William James, the psychologist, the proceedings of the Psychical Research Society, the wonderful results of psycho-therapeusis dealing with the unconscious self, the subliminal 'consciousness,' or as Captain Hadfield prefers to call it, 'heightened personality' in his paper on this subject 'The Mind and the Brain' in Immortality, to realise not only the greatness of the advance in psychical knowledge, but also the vast new field of investigation thus opened out to the student.
OTTERBURN TOWER NORTHUMBERLAND April 1919
[Footnote 1: Demonology and Witchcraft. Letter x.]
[Footnote 2: Readers of Woodstock will remember Sir Walter Scott's account of 'Joseph Collins, commonly called Funny Joe—who, under the feigned name of Giles Sharp, hired himself as a servant to the Commissioners.'
'The account of this by the Commissioners themselves, or under their authority, was repeatedly published....'
It is amusing to note that 'this narrative gave equal satisfaction to the Cavaliers and Roundheads: the former conceiving that the licence given to the demons was in consequence of this impious desecration of the King's furniture and apartments, so that the citizens of Woodstock, almost adored the supposed spirits, as avengers of the cause of royalty; while the friends of the Parliament, on the other hand, imputed to the malice of the Fiend the obstruction of the pious work, as they judged that which they had in hand.']
IN THE BLACKFRIARS WYND 1
BY PEDEN'S CLEUCH 23
'ILL-STEEKIT' EPHRAIM 31
THE COCK-CROW 49
BY THE SHRINE OF SAINT CUTHBERT 59
*'MEENISTER' MACHIAVELLI 67
ELDER 'MACHIAVELLI-ER' 83
REPENTANCE TOWER 99
*THE LORD WARDEN'S TOMB 109
CASTLE ICHABOD 121
THE MUNIMENT ROOM 137
IN THE CLIFF LAND OF THE DANE 153
*THE DOPPEL-GANGER 171
*IN MY LADY'S BEDCHAMBER 179
*THE WARLOCK OF GLORORUM 189
'MUCKLE-MOUTHED MEG' 203
*THE PRIOR OF TYNEMOUTH 223
THE HAUNTED ALE-HOUSE 233
THE CRY OF THE PEACOCK 245
KITTY'S BOWER 255
THE TALE OF THE THREE ANTIQUARIES 271
APUD CORSTOPITUM 283
IN THE BLACKFRIARS WYND
''Twill be a black day for auld Scotland when she ceases to believe in the muckle Deil,' commented 'the Meenister' of the Tron Kirk, when I had explained to him my troubles and sought his 'ghostly counsel and advice,' as the English service has it, 'to the quieting of my conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.' My father had been English, but my mother was Scotch, and she had sent me to my uncle, Deacon Abercrombie, to be entered as apprentice to his craft of the goldsmiths. He was a widower, lived alone, and was reputed to be eccentric, but as far as worldly gear was concerned the Deacon was a highly responsible citizen; as burgess, guild brother, and deacon of his craft he could hold his head as high on the causeway as any other, be he who he might, in the city.
Not even the 'stairhead critics,' who, as Auld Reekie's poet writes,
'wi' glowering eye Their neighbours' sma'est faults descry,'
could point at any speck in his general repute.
The Reverend Andrew Geddes was somewhat stricken in years; his beard was white as snow, his thrapple loose below his chin, and the flesh had ebbed from his bones, but his mind was as alert as ever, and his goodness stood manifest in his face.
We were sitting in his lodging, situate in a high 'timberland' in the Canongate, just without the Nether Bow, on the same side as the Tron Kirk, and from his little tourelle we could survey as from an eyrie the coming and going of the citizens upon the street.
'Ay,' said he again, 'it will be a gey evil day for Scotland when she ceases to believe i' the muckle black Deil. Whatten temptations he can offer is oft forgot. Ye'll hae heard tell o' Major Weir—the whilom "Bowhead Saint," as they callit him—ye'll hae heard tell o' him, laddie? I mind my father talkin' o' his ain greetin' sair for bein' ower young to gang to his hangin'.'
Had I no? Ay, and of his staff that went before him like a link boy, and of the coach with six black horses that carried him and his sister backwards and forwards from hell!
'Eh, laddie, what a sermon I could preach to ye on this tremendous problem!' he said regretfully, bethinking him of my youthful years.
'Aweel,' he added discreetly, 'I dinna ken your uncle—the responsible Deacon—save by sight and repute, as ane that disna spend, an' isna verra sociable; yet he attends the Great Kirk, "comes forrit," does he not, to the Holy Table?' I nodded assent.
'Is as reputable a citizen as any that treads on the High Street, and yet for a' that he may hae a canker o' the soul. Aiblins Davie Hume has sappit his belief, and the muckle Deil, kennin' that, is thrawin' a flee ower him as for a saumon the noo.'
As I sat there shivering all down my spine, my companion looked upon me very kindly from his thoughtful, gentle eyes of blue that faded to grey at the marge, and said, 'Stop up your ears, laddie, like the adder, to any temptin' o' your uncle. Keep watch and ward, and, if need arise, run for me instantly, for, though I'm auld the noo, I'm aye ready for a warsil wi' auld Hornie.'
Heartened by the minister's sympathy and courage I returned to my uncle's lodging in Blackfriars Wynd, and continued to devote myself to his craft in the back of his booth in the High Street, which appealed to me greatly for ingenuity and skill.
In accord with my mother's advice I had endeavoured to cherish an affection for my uncle, yet withal there was something about the man that misliked me much, and, to speak straight to the point, that actually 'fley'd' me, for he would gloat o' night over his glass of toddy on any scandal afloat concerning the 'unco guid,' and would speak with tongue i' the cheek of virtue in general, as if indeed hypocrisy were the true king of this world. I thought at first his purpose was to tease me and draw me out, but I soon came to believe it was all a part of the horrid nature of the man himself.
Further again than this, he seemed to exercise a dreadful and secret power over 'Brownie'—his pathetic little serving boy, orphan and mute.
I had realised that 'Brownie' lived in terror of his employer, though I never saw him the victim of any physical ill-treatment; one night indeed he came shivering and terrified into my bedroom, and by signs gave me to understand that my uncle was hunting for him, and it was not till I had bolted my door that he grew somewhat calmer.
He would not leave me, but insisted on lying down at the foot of my bed throughout the night.
I thought possibly the poor lad might labour under some hallucination, but I felt fear myself, for I distinctly heard some one attempt to open my door very stealthily a short time after 'Brownie' had taken refuge in my room.
No, it was not surprising, I reflected, that 'Brownie' should be 'feared' of my uncle when I was myself in the like case, for there was 'no milk of human kindness' in him. His eyes were shielded by a chevaux de frise of bristles, and when one caught a glint from them 'twas as if one had encountered the malevolent gleam of a ferret intent upon his own ruthless schemes.
He was short of stature, possessed abnormally long arms, had a heavy moustache, and very hairy, flexible fingers, with which he performed wondrous feats of craftsmanship, but to my fearful imagination he seemed to resemble at times a tarantula spider of alarming proportions.
There had been of late an epidemic of crime in the city, which had seriously perturbed the good burgesses; various shops had been broken into, and cash and valuables had been 'lifted,' but as no arrests had been effected a general feeling of insecurity was rife in Auld Reekie; all which was a constant theme of merriment on my uncle's sardonic lips.
What had led me to approach 'the Meenister' and confide my apprehension to him, as I have shown above, was the mute, appealing look in poor 'Brownie's' eyes. But as 'Brownie' looked much brighter and happier during the next few weeks I regained my own equanimity, and grew somewhat shamed of my first nervous fears. This being so I thought it only right that I should visit 'Meenister Geddes' once more and report to him my belief in the groundless nature of my vague imaginations. I had found him at home, and stayed 'cracking' on with him till past ten of the clock.
Then as I returned somewhat in haste and doubtful how to effect my entry into my uncle's lodging undiscovered, or how, if discovered, to explain my absence, I brushed against a wayfarer at the corner of the Blackfriars Wynd.
''Tis a footpad,' I thought, for he was velvet-footed, and I heard no tread on the pavement. I glanced narrowly at the swift-passing stranger, and beneath the smouldering 'bowet' I had borrowed from the 'Meenister' I recognised with a start the slight, shrunken figure of 'Brownie' with his white, pathetic face. It was the swiftest of visions, yet I had seen enough to give me a 'gliff,' for the eyes were not those of 'Brownie,' but of my uncle.
This chance encounter reawoke all my previous apprehensions. The very fact that I had only an eerie suspicion on which to build increased my mental discomfort. There was something behind to which my watch and ward had afforded me no clue.
Nothing more transpired for another few weeks when one night as I lay awake meditating I heard a footstep on the stair without. It was late, for my uncle had been out, and I had sat up reading, and had forgotten how time was passing. As I continued to listen I heard a strange moaning proceeding, I felt sure, from 'Brownie's' attic, which was situate a foot or two above my chamber on the top turn of the newel stairway. I had recognised, I thought, the tread on the stairs, for my uncle's footstep was peculiar, since he had a slight limp; it was this that had aroused my attention and reawakened my apprehension.
The moaning had been that of a dumb animal, and I had heard it once or twice before when poor 'Brownie' had been in pain.
Stealing out of my room a-tiptoe I very gently laid my hand on the 'sneck' of 'Brownie's' den and tried to lift it without noise.
But, though it lifted, the door was 'steekit' from within.
There was no sound to be heard therein; I stood there with pricked ear, but could learn nothing by listening. Perhaps I might be able to discern somewhat through the aperture above the pin of the 'sneck.' 'Brownie's' den had, as I knew, a window in its tourelle, and as the night was moonlit though stormy, I might in a flitting moonbeam perhaps espy somewhat.
Stooping, I placed my eye to the tiny slit, and waited impatiently for a gleam of white light that might penetrate from the westward airt which it faced.
A quarter of an hour, perhaps, elapsed; I could see nothing, and my patience was almost exhausted, when on a sudden the beam of moonlight so earnestly expected filtered fitfully into the den, and there, though faintly, was revealed to me the form of my uncle lying motionless upon the truckle bed—apparently in deep slumber.
Where then was 'Brownie?' I searched the small den for him, but nowhere could I discover him. The window was open. Just as I made this discovery the moonlight faded away and left me in darkness, filled with a horrid suspicion. I waited on in hope of the moonlight returning, but rain set in, and I returned to my own chamber much perplexed as to what to do. Leaving the door ajar I determined to sit up and listen for any further sound, or the creak of a footstep on the stair, but though I listened till grey dawn came I heard no sound at all.
Then once again I stole a-tiptoe to 'Brownie's' door, and peeped through the aperture. Once again I was astounded, for I could now discern that 'Brownie's' figure lay upon the truckle bed instead of that of my uncle, which I had seen before.
Could I have been mistaken previously? No, I was certain my eyesight had not deceived me. How could it have? What I had descried had quite belied my expectation, and had been totally unforeseen.
I returned to my bed determined to investigate the open window at the first opportunity.
I slept ill, and when I rose I found the door of 'Brownie's' den open. Entering in, I saw that 'Brownie' had got up and the window was closed. Investigating further, I opened it cautiously and looked forth to see if there were any exit either to the ground or on to the roof.
Evidently there could be none to the ground, for the room was situate at the height of the tall 'land.' Nor was there any opening on to the roof, so far as I could discover, for the little tourelle overhung the wall, and no foothold was possible.
Yet there was one way out. The 'land' stood in the narrowest part of the wynd; right opposite, and not more than five feet away rose the opposite wall, finishing off into a gable end with corbie-steps affording easy access to the further roof.
Could 'Brownie' have leaped across? It was not impossible, as the space was so narrow, and though the window was small there was room to pass through. Then as I thus measured the spaces I caught sight of a plank below the window resting on the floor. 'Twas perhaps a foot and a half broad, in length about six feet—sufficient to act as a bridge across the wynd. I had discovered enough to excite my most vivid apprehensions as to its use, but nothing else in the little den gave any clue to the mystery.
Descending the stairs I found my uncle already engaged upon breakfast. He seemed in high good-humour, and roasted me heartily upon my unpunctuality. 'Brownie' came in at that moment carrying some scones, and I noted out of the tail of my eye that he looked extremely haggard and miserable.
Assuming a woebegone air I told my uncle that 'Auld Reekie' suited me poorly, and that the climate was too 'snell' for my southern constitution.
'Hae ye heard the sad bruit?' he asked suddenly, 'the causeway's fair ringin' wi't. Puir Tom Macalister, the rich shipper o' Leith, has been found wi' his throat cut lyin' ahint the dyke by the Leith walk. There's an unco scandal afoot anent it—some says a merry-begot o' his ain has done it oot o' revenge for bein' kep' short o' siller by his father.' He paused a moment, then added significantly, 'Ay, ay, Macalister was aye verra generous to the Foundlings' Hospital. Wha kens?' He heaved a sigh, but his eye twinkled satirically, 'The hairt o' man is deceitfu' an' daisperitly wicked,' and he lifted the whites of his eyes heavenward like a hound mourning.
'Was the poor man robbed?' I inquired shortly.
'Ay, was he,' returned my uncle; 'he was seemingly stuffed wi' bank-notes for payin' his men the day. He was gangin' hame after supper—gey fou, maist like. Eh, laddie!' he continued, 'sic an end to ane wha was regairded as belongin' to the Saints! Wae's me for the godly,' and again he lifted his eyes upward as a hound crying u-lu-lu for his lost master. Then he gave me a sharp look, somewhat askance, as he asked me swiftly, 'Whatten a discourse, think ye, will ye get frae your meenister o' the Tron Kirk the morn?'
I blenched, I felt, at this sudden thrust. Had his familiar informed him of my interview?
'It will be a sair blow to him,' I said, with apparent unconcern, 'but it cannot affect him directly.'
'No affect him?' returned my uncle, seemingly shocked at my indifference, 'not when he was aye hand an' glove wi' him?'
'He was no his bairn,' I retorted, hastily finishing off my "parritch" with a gulp. 'I'm late, as ye said,' I added, rising, 'I must be off to my work at the booth.'
'Ay, ay,' returned my uncle, 'wark's aye best in an evil day.'
As soon as my work was finished for the day I hastened to call upon 'the Meenister,' and, finding him at home, at once informed him of my discovery of the night, and of my uncle's satirical mention of poor Mr. Macalister's fate.
'Laddie,' he exclaimed earnestly as I concluded 'ye hae dune well to come to me. Puir Tom Macalister was just as decent, straight-leevin' a Christian man as could be found i' braid Scotland. There's somethin' gey wrang wi' your uncle, I'm fearin' sadly. I'll no let any one blacken the memory o' Thomas Macalister. Noo, laddie, keep ye a quiet watch—sayin' naethin'; but aye wait on wi' eye an' ear for onything further suspeecious at hame, an' if ye hear puir "Brownie" skreighin' come your ways straucht here for me—an' we'll see if we canna tackle the evil—an' with the help o' Heaven, scotch it.' His eye lit, his mouth tightened; he clenched his fist, ready for immediate 'warsil wi' auld Hornie.'
I promised faithfully, and withdrew with a heart somewhat relieved, though not relishing the thought of being alone with my uncle in the lonely house wherein either suspected the other.
My uncle that evening scarcely alluded to the murder again save to ask if I had had any news, and to mention that the funeral was to be the next day. Then he laughed uncannily, leering upon me over his spectacles.
'I'm tell't that he's left a muckle legacy to the Foundlings. What think ye o' that, laddie?'
'He might have done worse,' I replied, almost angrily, though inwardly I shivered. 'He might have left it to the cadies of the toon for drink.'
A fortnight perhaps passed without event; the City Guards were said to have found a clue, and the Town Council had offered a large reward for any information that might lead to the apprehension of the murderer, but nothing definite had been discovered.
Gossip was rife, and in the taverns 'twas bruited that my uncle's conjecture had come nighest to the bull's-eye. For my own part I had quietly made what arrangements I thought feasible in case of any further suspicious act of my uncle. I kept watch and ward with eye and ear, as Minister Geddes had directed, but not till another fortnight had elapsed did I hear his footstep on the stair, by 'Brownie's' den. Then one night as I lay half-dozing I was certain I did hear the lame footfall. Instantly I was broad awake, and waited in alarmed expectancy. Ha! there it was again—the low skreigh o' pain I had heard before. I was 'gliffed' indeed, horribly afeared, yet I must act, so a-tiptoe I stole out, and like a cat stealthily approached 'Brownie's' door. The hour was somewhat after eleven, for I had heard the Tron Kirk chap recently; the moon in her last quarter had risen, and I could dimly descry the interior of the den.
I shrank back after peering through the small aperture, for there was my uncle stretched out on 'Brownie's' truckle bed. The window was opened, and I could see that the board or plank I had previously measured lay on the sill.
Of 'Brownie' I could not see a sign.
I turned away on the instant. Now was the time to go fetch 'the Meenister.'
Noiselessly I descended the stairs, let myself out by a low side window in the cellar, and made straight for the lodging of 'the Meenister.' I dared not rouse the porter of the Nether Bow Port, but climbed the wall beyond even as Bothwell had done after the explosion at Kirk o' Field, and made my way down the Canongate. Minister Geddes was within, and fortunately had not yet gone to bed. He was ready in a moment to come with me. With a Bible under his oxter, and a 'bowet' new lit in his right hand, he accompanied me swiftly up the street. His courage was wonderful; he seemed like 'Greatheart'—valiant to meet Apollyon in battle. I caught hold of the end of his plaid, and followed him non passibus aequis like the parvus Iulus, for he hastened onward with his loins girded up. I do not know that more than twenty minutes had elapsed when we arrived at the cellar window and I had helped him through. Together we noiselessly mounted the stairs; then when we arrived at 'Brownie's' den he reached me the 'bowet' to hold while he peered through the aperture.
Then he turned to me and said in a whisper:
'Laddie, we mun just break doon the door. If it is as I'm thinkin' he winna hear us. His evil spirit is awa i' puir 'Brownie's' body, bent on Deevil's wark. Here's for it!' and as he spake he thrust swiftly with his foot and broke down the wooden bolt that fastened the door.
In we went—I holding the little 'bowet' on high to give us light. 'Ay,' whispered my companion in my ear, 'I'm richt. He's in a swoond; he disna see or hear us.' I gazed in horror on my uncle's face. His eyes were not closed, but were as unseeing as a blind man's. There was, I thought, a hateful look as of triumphant evil on his lips, but his breath came regularly as of one in deep sleep.
'Noo, laddie,' said the good minister, 'we mun act. "Brownie" will be returnin' before daybreak, an' we hae to keep the twa o' them apairt. His evil spirit is awa wi' the puir laddie, and we mun prevent body an' spirit comin' thegither again. It is like to be a fearfu' warsil, but wi' the help o' the Bible an' our God we'll triumph.' I could see his eye glow and his brow light with inspiration, and I drew in courage as I looked upon him in his intrepidity.
'Gang ye oot ower by the bit plankin', laddie,' he commanded me, pointing to the window. 'Gang, an' wait for "Brownie," then when he comes back grup him fast and pray tae Heaven. I'll shut tae the windie and grup the figure here on the bed.'
I could not disobey, but I trembled horribly as I crawled slowly forth upon the plank. The minister had sat himself down by the bedside, and was reading aloud by the light of the 'bowet' from out of Genesis of Jacob's wrestling all night long with the angel of God. I could hear his voice as I slithered slowly across my plank of dread.
'And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh ... '
The faith of the old man alone in the den with the fearsome figure on the bed heartened me greatly. I reached the end of the plank, grasped firmly the coping of the corbie-step, pulled myself up and felt for firm footing in the lead gutter of the roof below.
There for a few minutes I lay still, my heart palpitating, and reflected on what was next to be attempted.
All was still about me. Save for a belated roysterer singing on his way homeward, and one or two nightbirds on the street below whose footfalls sounded fitfully, no whisper broke on the eerie night.
I looked around and about in the moonlight, and noted a passage behind me between the roofs of the 'lands.' Here surely would be the way by which 'Brownie' would return from his nocturnal excursion. I sat crouched beside the gable end and waited fearfully for any sound of his returning. The Minister's 'bowet' had now gone out; the window was closed. I felt tremors assail me in my loneliness. Then I caught sight of Orion above the further roofs—advancing with glittering sword—as a champion to challenge of combat—and at once a great composure stole within my heart, for I too was engaged in a great combat against evil.
The good Minister had assuredly probed the problem to the quick; even as Elijah had breathed life into the body of the son of the Shulamite widow so had my uncle like a fiend from the pit breathed an evil spirit into poor 'Brownie's' body, and through him executed horrid deeds.
Our great task was to prevent body and spirit from coming together again. 'Twas certain that the Minister trusted to be able to prevent this re-union by prayer and exorcism, and I was his assistant therein.
I trembled at the struggle so imminent upon me, and prayed God for assistance in my hour of need.
Crouching quietly there, I noticed that the wind had now arisen from the west and was driving heavy spume of cloud across the moon so that she was overwhelmed and sank from sight. Soon again, however, she emerged from her labours, and, clothed in white, paced serene as a Madonna faring to her churching.
Just then I heard a furtive sound behind me, and gazing swiftly backward I caught sight of a slight form in grey creeping prone upon the gutter.
The moment of trial had come. Drawing in my breath I crouched lower still and moved not till the grey form rose up as if to lay hold of the coping-stone. Then swiftly I turned and seized him by the waist, pulling him down backward.
Like a ferret—sudden as a flash—he bit my hand, and we were down in the gutter together.
'Brownie' was of frail build, but he now seemed to be possessed of a demoniac's strength, and my arms failed to hold him. I felt his hands upon my neck and grew dizzy.
I prayed then as I had never prayed before, and on the sudden a thought lit in my brain. I remembered one of 'Brownie's' infirmities—his breathing through his mouth. I had strength to pluck at my bonnet, thrust it into his mouth, and leaned my chin upon the cloth with all my force.
I was still uppermost, and though he twined and twisted like a serpent, I held on while my head seemed almost bursting. The thought of Jacob wrestling through the night sustained me, and now at last 'Brownie's' clutch upon my throat relaxed.
I shook my head free. I breathed again in the cold air—I felt all the energy ebb from the body beneath me. I had conquered at last. 'Brownie' lay quietly in the gutter, breathing gently as a babe.
I rose to my feet and peered across the chasm. There in the chamber opposite was the Minister wrestling on his knees with the figure on the bed. Just at that moment a cock crew from far below in the purple depth of the city. The silence seemed to shiver about me.
Thank God! Daybreak at last after the horror of darkness.
As I watched I saw the struggling figure fall suddenly backward on the bed. The Minister rose from his knees and came towards the window.
He opened it, and I saw his face shining in the moonlight—like a saint's—haggard yet triumphant.
'Gie thanks to God, laddie,' he cried to me, as he bent his head reverently, 'we hae striven like Jacob an' hae prevailed. There's a deid man lies upon the bedstraw.'
BY PEDEN'S CLEUCH
TO WHOSE SUGGESTION THE TALE IS OWING
BY PEDEN'S CLEUCH
The Border hounds had gone right away up Redewater after an old dog fox they had picked up on the rocks beside the Doure; twice had he circled the Doure, then setting his mask westwards had crossed the Rede, and, turning right-handed, made straight for Carter Fell.
My mare had gone splendidly for the first hour, but by the time we passed the cairn on the Carter she had lost a shoe, and in addition had sustained a bad 'over-reach,' so I was fain to pull up and dismount, while I watched the Master and whip, and one other intrepid horseman, struggling gamely on towards Carlin's Tooth on the Scottish side of the Border after the tail of the vanished hounds.
I determined to descend to the grass-grown Hawick road which leads into the Jedburgh-Newcastle road half a mile from the ancient Border boundary line. The early morning that particular April day had been lovely; curlews newly returned had luted their love-song overhead; golden plovers had piped upon the bents; there was a scent of heather-burning in the snell air, but suddenly the weather had changed, and with an idle motion snowflakes now drifted down the wind. Cheviot was fast disappearing behind a white shroud; the triple Eildons showed like breaking billows; Ruberslaw alone was black against the sky.
I stayed a minute or two more to give my mare a mouthful of water at the springs of Jed, but whereas I had intended an inch she insisted upon an ell.
As I tried to drag her head out of the little pool of water, a stranger—evidently an old shepherd—accompanied by a frail old collie bitch came up beside me.
'Hae ye had guid huntin'?' he inquired, 'Hae ye killed the fox? They're mischievous beasts at the best, but worst o' a' at this season—aye seekin' for the puir lambs.'
I said I thought the fox had got right away, and would probably save his brush by taking refuge in some stronghold by Carlin's Tooth.
'Ay,' he replied absently, then added, 'D' ye ken the name o' this cleuch?'
'No,' I replied; 'I come from the wrong side of the Border,' finally succeeding, as I spoke, in drawing my mare's head out of the water.
''Tis Peden's Cleuch,' he said with animation; ''tis the place where blessed Master Peden was preachin' when the bloody "Clavers" was huntin' him like a fox on the fells; ay, and would hae worrited him wi' his hounds had na the Lord sent down His mist and wrapped him awa frae the hunters.'
He paused a moment, then continued slowly:
'They still hunt for him—"Clavers" and Grierson o' Lag; 'tis the weird they hae to dree till the Day o' Doom for their wickedness i' pursuin' the Saints o' God.'
'Have you ever seen them?' I asked lightly.
'Ay, I hae,' came the unexpected response, 'whiles i' the "oncome" or "haar," or by the moonlicht.
'D' ye no ken the bit ballant?
"Soondless they ride—for aye i' search o' their boon— They ha' died, but God's feud is for aye unstaunched, And aye they mun ride by the licht o' the moon."'
'No,' I replied, astonished, 'but how—supposing you have seen them—could you know them to be "Clavers" and Grierson o' Lag?'
'Not only hae I seen them, but I aince heard them talking,' my companion replied quietly as before.
'When was that?' I asked, still more astonished, as I looked more keenly at the speaker.
He was a man of middle stature, dressed in rough shepherd's costume, with a plaid about his shoulders; he had a gentle aspect, with tremulous mouth, and a far-away look in his eyes of speedwell blue.
'I'll tell ye,' he replied simply. 'Blessed Master Peden had been here i' the "killing times," ye ken, preachin' till the puir hill folk, an' baptizin' their bairns—he baptized a forebear o' my ain—and it would likely be the annivairsary o' the day when he escaped frae the hans o' the hunters through the "haar," when I chanced to come by here an' saw a bit tent pit up, an' heard folk carousin' within.
'I creepit up, an' I keeked within the openin' o't, an' there I saw twa hunters sittin' at board—eatin', and whiles drinkin' the blood-red wine—ane o' them was the bonniest man e'er I saw i' my life, but he had the sorrowfullest eyes e'er set i' a man's face. There was ne'er a bit colour to his cheeks save where a trickle o' claret had stained the corner o' his lip.
'His comrade was juist the opposite till him; foul he was, an' discoloured wi' lust an' liquor—mair like a haggis nor a human face ava.
'There was a wumman beside him—dootless his whure, that had ridden oot frae Jedburgh to be wi' him—nestlin' in at his side like a ewe till her ram i' the autumn; not that he was takin' muckle thocht o' her, though—an' then he cries oot loud:
'"'Tis a moonlicht nicht, my Lord Claverhouse," he cries; "we'll hunt oor quarry ower muir an' fell, an' aiblins hae mair luck than we had i' the day; we'll run the auld brock to ground before dawn, I'll hand ye a handfu' o' Jacobuses."
'"I'll hand ye," replied Claverhouse, wi' a smile on his bonny, sad face,
"Ye'll tak the high road an' I'll tak the low road, An' I'll be in North Tyne afore ye.
"So up an' tak wing, my grey-lag goose," he says, "an' wing your way straight to the North Tyne water."
'"Then here's a last toast," cries Lag, holdin' up his bicker fu' o' wine.
'Noo, what think ye was his toast?' my companion broke off to inquire of me with eye agleam.
I shook my head, and laid hold of my saddle to remount, for the eerie communication, the loneliness of the spot, and the isolation of the drifting snowflakes had all combined to give me a 'scunner.'
'It was their ain damnation,' my companion whispered in my ear; 'he was proposin' the murder o' the Saints o' God—juist the "sin against the Holy Ghaist"—that was his fearsome health.'
I had climbed into my saddle, and at that moment an unseen plover wailed through the mist.
'Hark!' cried my companion, lifting a finger.
'Hark to his soul i' torment!'
My mare took fright, and made a great spring forward; I let her go, for I was 'gliffed' myself, and right glad was I to reach the road made by human hands that led homeward, for I feared if I stayed on that I too might meet the wraiths of Claverhouse and Lag hunting the moorlands for blessed Master Peden.
[Footnote 1: Peden, the Covenanter, was undoubtedly on the Border in the 'killing times,' and is said to have escaped from the hunters when preaching on Peden Pike by intervention of a mist, but as in old maps this rounded hill west of Otterburn is spelt Paden, the derivation seems doubtful. Peden's Cleuch on the north side of Carter seems undoubtedly to have been his refuge.]
'About the middle of the night The cocks began to craw: And at the dead hour o' the night The corpse began to thraw.'
Ballad of Young Benjie.
We—that is, the four members of our Oxford reading party—were bathing in a deep pool in many-terraced Tees, and I was seated on a rock's edge, drying in the September sunshine, and quoting from Clough's 'Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich':
'How to the element offering their bodies, down shooting the fall, They mingled themselves with the flood and the force of imperious water,'
when from the central black cauldron immediately below me appeared the face of Sandie—our best diver—with a most curiously perturbed expression on his countenance. I had been watching a little circlet of foam that eddied round on the outskirts of the current, and seemed to wink at me with a hint of hidden and evasive mystery.
Then it vanished, for Sandie's head had shattered it.
'Hello, Sandie!' I cried to him, 'what's up? It's not cramp, is it?'
He climbed out and up to where I sat on the rock above, and shook the water from his hair.
'Ugh!' he said in disgust. 'I've just been to the bottom, and there I swear I came across a drowned body; I felt a corpse and touched long hair. I believe it was a woman's.' He looked at his hands in disgust, and perceptibly shivered.
'Nonsense!' said I. 'It must have been a drowned cow or sheep, or possibly a pony.'
'Go down and look, or rather feel for yourself,' he retorted.
'How deep down was it?' I inquired.
'Twenty feet, perhaps,' he said, 'for it's a deep pool, and I believe the poor thing's tethered—sunk with a stone tied to her feet.'
'Surely not,' I exclaimed, 'for if it was a case of murder it would be known.'
'Go down and see for yourself,' cried Sandie testily. 'I've had enough of it.' Calling our other two companions I told them of Sandie's discovery, and we came to the conclusion that it was our duty to try to verify or disprove Sandie's assertion.
These two dived, but did not get down far enough in the water; it seemed to me as I watched their attempts that the stream carried them too swiftly forward, so when my turn came I dived in somewhat higher up, and got as far down as I could in my dive, and kept on striking downwards till I calculated I was close to the spot Sandie had indicated. Treading the water I felt about in the amber swirl for Sandie's gruesome find, but the circling eddy swept me onward.
Knowing my breath was all but exhausted I made a final effort, sank a little deeper, striving against the current, and spread my hands abroad. I touched something—surely it was hair! Kicking against the stream I felt again.
Yes, it was hair floating in the current—the hair of a woman. I touched with a shrinking hand a human head, then almost suffocated, I rose to the surface and slowly regained the shore.
'Well?' interrogated Sandie, watching my face closely.
'I believe you're right,' I said faintly, still short of breath. 'Yes, I believe it's some poor woman, for I could just touch the skull, and the hair was long and floating in the current.'
'Good Lord!' exclaimed the two others. 'Can she have got wedged in between two rocks?'
'I think she's been thrown in,' said Sandie gloomily. 'I felt her body swaying to the stream. Some ruffian's knocked her on the head, tied a stone to her feet, and flung her in.'
'No more bathing for me,' I said, shivering. 'We'll just have to dress and go back and report to "the Dean."'
When we had returned to the inn where we were lodging we reported our discovery to our tutor, 'the Dean,' and asked his advice. 'Granted that you have "viewed the corpse," as coroners insist, I suppose you should report it to the Inspector of Police,' said he thoughtfully, 'but perhaps I might find out first from our landlord if there has been any story about of a woman being missed. Possibly a "village tragedy" may come to light. When we've had tea I will have a pipe and a "crack," as they call it here, with our landlord. Perhaps at supper I may have something to report.'
We were well content to leave it in 'the Dean's' hands, for he was most astute in management of men, and loved to fathom a mystery.
At supper, which was an informal meal, whereat we waited on ourselves, he told us that he had found out nothing in course of his 'crack' with the landlord, for the simple reason that he had only been a month in possession, and nothing eventful had occurred in that time.
'I think,' suggested 'the Dean,' 'that you two divers should run down on your bikes to-morrow to the Inspector of Police at Middleton, and tell him privately of your discovery.'
This Sandie and I willingly agreed to, and started off after breakfast down the valley. We found on arrival that the Inspector was away at the county town attending the Assizes, and was not expected back till the end of the week.
We got back just in time to escape a drenching, for a 'thunder plump' broke in the heaven above the moors as we ascended the last rise to the inn, which effectually prevented all thought of further investigation of the Black Lynn pool.
The next morning was brilliant after the storm, and naturally suggested an expedition.
'Let's go for a walk right across the moors,' said Sandie to me; 'the other two want to work, but I've turned restless.'
I agreed at once, for I was restless also in disappointment of our errand. We ordered sandwiches, obtained leave from 'the Dean,' and prepared to start off at once.
'Don't fret if we don't get back to-night,' cried Sandie, the 'second-sighted,' to our tutor as we departed; 'we may get lost, Ted may break down under his weight of learning, or one of Saint Cuthbert's Cross Fell fiends may "lift" him.'
We wanted to get as far as Brough under Stanemoor, and back by the great 'Nick,' and then athwart Cross Fell's desolate moor, but we had not taken the weather into our consideration, nor thought of possible sopping peat-hags on our return journey.
Thus when we had toiled up 'the Nick' by a narrow path from Brough to the wild moorland we found our track across the waste very difficult to follow. By six o'clock the clouds had gathered black above us, and another thunderstorm grew imminent.
Suddenly the lightning flared through the serrated gloom, and thunder reverberated over the heather.
The rain descended javelin-like upon us as we struggled through the heavy peat-hags; we lost our bearings and determined to make for any light that we might descry in lonely farm or shepherd's sheil on this forsaken waste. We had almost given up hope when we saw a faint glimmer through the increasing gloom three-quarters of a mile away, perhaps, on our left hand.
We made for our beacon as straightly as we could; then in a dip we lost sight of it, but eventually succeeded in discovering it again, and judged the light to proceed from the window of a small farm, as indeed proved to be the case when we had traversed another mile of broken moorland.
After knocking on the door repeatedly, we heard some one moving within. We went up to the window, and asked for shelter from the storm, as we were strangers who had lost our way.
The door slowly opened, and a man bearing a tallow dip in a battered sconce showed himself in the entry.
'We've little accommodation here the night,' he said, as he looked at us somewhat suspiciously; 'the goodman has died and lies steekit in his coffin, but ye can come in for shelter if ye have a mind.'
This did not sound very inviting, but any shelter was preferable to a night in a peat-hag; so we accepted his offer, and followed the man within.
It was a strange scene that met our eyes in the little kitchen. On trestles in the middle of the room stood the coffin; in a box-bed to one side of the hearth an old woman in a white mutch or cap sat up against pillows; on the farther side of the hearth sat an untidy, foolish-faced girl who peeled potatoes with an uncanny disconcern.
The old woman, on the contrary, had exceedingly bright eyes, and seemed to note everything with extraordinary interest. 'Wha's there?' she asked, as we bowed in a hesitating manner to our hostess.
Sandie explained who we were and how we had chanced to intrude upon her in such an untimely hour.
'Ay,' she replied, 'the goodman's dead, and is to be lifted the morn, but ye can bide the night; and if ye dinna mind such company,' she pointed contemptuously at the man who had let us in, 'ye can sleep wi' him i' the room above.'
'Whisht, mother, whisht wi' yer talk afore strange gentlemen,' said he, and he seemed to be very uneasy beneath her scorn.
'Why should I whisht?' she said angrily. 'Why hae na ye brocht my daughter Jean to her father's burying?'
The man turned to us eagerly, evidently anxious to divert our attention.
'Be seated, gentlemen,' he said, drawing up two chairs to the fire; 'ye'll be ready for something to eat belike. Mary can give ye some bacon and eggs and potatoes for supper whilst ye dry your coats.'
'Ay,' interrupted the old lady, 'ye shall have meat and drink. Nane shall come to a burying at my hoose and no have meat and drink before they gang awa. Set oot the bannocks and honey and milk, Mary, for the lads, then mak ready the bacon and eggs.'
Mary with a strange disordered giggle that brought a chill to my bones, looked up at this and half spoke, half sang, aloud to herself by way of reply. 'Meat and drink for Dad's burying. But wherefore not for Jean's? Puir lassie, she was aye kind to me, was Jeannie.'
'Don't heed her, gentlemen,' said the man in a husky voice, 'she's a bit daft, poor girl,' and as he spoke he trod noisily on the stone floor, evidently trying to drown her voice, and forthwith dragged a table that stood in the window somewhat nearer the hearth.
Mary had now finished with her potatoes, and was cutting rashers of bacon which were soon sizzling delightfully in the pan. Meantime Sandie was talking to our bedridden hostess, whom he had discovered to be of Scottish extraction, and I was conversing with the son-in-law about the danger of being lost on Cross Fell.
There was a lull in the storm at this time, but one could hear the long lances of rain striking on the stone tiles above; it was good to be within doors, and to dry one's coat by the peat embers. We insisted on our hostess partaking of supper, which we served up to her in bed; then Sandie and I, the girl and the man, set ourselves down by the table and stretched forth our hands, in the Homeric phrase, 'to the good things set before us.'
Sandie and I had our backs to the coffin, and had forgotten all about it and the 'goodman,' its occupant; Mary and her brother-in-law sat at the corners of the table, and their features were lit up by the flickering peats. The man had shifty, furtive eyes, set rather deep beneath an overhanging forehead, lined cheeks, and a clean-shaven heavy jaw; Mary, with sallow face, light eyes, and disordered hair sat opposite him, evidently apprehensive.
A strange party amid strange surroundings, thought I, for a moment, as I framed an etching of the black coffin, the bright-eyed old woman in the night mutch abed, the daft girl and dour man and two Oxford undergraduates eating heartily amid the flickering light of the dip and the peat flames.
But what a splendid moorland supper it was! Bacon and eggs and fried potatoes, bannocks with butter, heather honey and milk.
'What luck!' I murmured in Sandie's ear, 'to be hopelessly lost, and to find this!' and I stretched forth my legs at glorious ease. 'Shifty eyes' now produced a 'cutty' and suggested a smoke, which Sandie and I were thinking was the one thing left to complete our satisfaction. Suddenly and without warning I heard a creak behind my chair, but I took no heed. Then a further creaking and a grinding noise—and I looked round. I saw the coffin-lid lift upward and a white shroud show below. Slowly the shrouded corpse rose with creaking bones before my staring eyes—rose to a sitting posture, and sat still. The coffin-lid clanged to the ground; then all was still, an awful silence filled the room. A moment more, and a cry of terror rose to the roof, for the man beside me was down on his knees before the corpse in an ecstasy of terror. 'Never accuse me, Ephraim! Dinnot terrify us that gate, feyther!' he cried in anguish. 'Poor Jean just happened an accident—fell and was drowned in the river.' The man's face held me rigid. Never had I seen mortal fear like this. Suddenly I heard a louder voice beside me, for Sandie—moved by an uncontrollable impulse—shot forth an accusing arm, and cried accusingly, 'She lies in the Black Linn pool—her head knocked in—a stone fast to her feet.' The man's face turned to ashes. Awfully he twisted his head about to the voice. He could not remove his eyes from Sandie's accusing countenance, spittle dropped from his bloodless lips, his eyes were like to pillars. Then he began to shuffle off—still upon his knees—away from Sandie and towards the door—with his face twisted over his shoulder as if it were made of stone.
He shuffled a little faster—still upon his knees—his head still twisted over his shoulder 'thrawn' in terror of Sandie and the accusing corpse. He reached the door, groped for the handle, opened it, then shambled to his feet, passed through the outer door, and so into the black night.
I saw the lightning swoop down upon the moorland. I caught a glimpse of a man running as one blinded—his hands above his head to protect himself—vaguely through the inky peat-hags. Then I turned to look on Sandie who was also gazing into the darkness—his face like the archangel Michael's. I had not yet found my voice, and could not speak for tension, when I heard a foolish titter from the girl beside me who was suddenly overcome with laughter.
'Tee hee,' she went, 'tee hee! What a funny face Tom had on him. Tee hee!'
Then I heard a voice from the bed speaking composedly. 'Ay, I aye kenned he'd murdered puir Jeannie. Whaur wast ye fund my puir lassie?' she asked Sandie.
As Sandie replied to her I looked at the fearful figure of the shrouded corpse that sat upright facing the doorway, whence his son-in-law had fled, and wondered if there could be any spark of life left within. As I looked the composed voice spoke again, 'Dinna be fieyed! Puir Ephraim's been ill-steekit. It's twa-three days since the doctor certifiedst him; noo his muscles hae stiffened and raxed him up. Ye mun lay him doon again, Maisters, for I'll no can sleep wi' him glowering that gate.'
The speaker in the night mutch was the only one of us who seemed unaffected by the extraordinary events we had just witnessed. Her eyes gleamed a trifle more brightly than before. That was the only difference.
I looked at Sandie in dismay at the task assigned to us, but he had risen, and now beckoned me to the coffin side. Handling the poor corpse as reverently as we could we found it very difficult to re-confine it to its resting-place, for the muscles had turned so stiff and rigid that we had to exert force, and seek heavy stones from outside to keep the lid shut down securely.
This done, and the door fastened against the return of the fugitive, at the old woman's command, though I felt sure in my own mind that the man would never come back again of his own accord, Sandie and I took the battered sconce and dying wick and went up to the bedroom above.
We sat upon the bed, smoked another pipe and conversed about the soul-stirring incidents we had just been witnesses of.
'Do you remember,' asked Sandie, 'the mediaeval legend of the dead man's wounds bleeding afresh in the presence of his murderer? I believe that the spirit of the dead man down below us must have been moved by the presence of his daughter's murderer.'
'To think of our having come across in such a mysterious and fortuitous way the poor daughter—Jean!' I said, occupied by another aspect of these extraordinary occurrences.
As we smoked and talked thus our dip went out, which was an intimation that we had better try to sleep.
We slept but fitfully, and rose early to help prepare our breakfast. Scarcely had we finished our repast when a neighbour arrived with a cart and horse wherewith he had promised to 'lift' the corpse and convey it over the rough track down the valley to the spot where the hearse from Middleton was to meet it.
We found a rope and bound the coffin-lid lightly down, and having given our promise to our hostess to recover, if we could, the body of her daughter Jean and give it proper burial, we bade her good-bye for the present and set off to the inn where the 'Dean' would be anxiously expecting us.
We related our experiences to the 'Dean,' we got the Inspector to come up, but failed entirely to discover the body in the Linn. For my part I thought the thunderstorm might be accountable for the disappearance, but Sandie had his own opinion on this matter. As to the criminal, some say he escaped the country, but I firmly believe he perished in a peat-hag, and to this day haunts the bleak spaces of Cross Fell.
A cloud hung over the bishopric—the ancient patrimony of Saint Cuthbert.
Bishop van Mildert had died and, sede vacante, great changes were impending, for Parliament was about to shear off a large portion of the privileges of the ancient franchise, to reduce the endowments, and to hand over the mines to the Ecclesiastical Commission.
* * * * *
The Reverend Arthur Egglestone—the youngest of the 'Golden Canons' and Lord of the Manor of Midhope, high up in Weardale—sat in his spacious, oak-panelled dining-room above the Wear, discussing the situation with his two companions over a very recherche supper prepared by the French chef of the Dean and Chapter.
The time was Lent, the eve of Good Friday, but the 'Golden Canon' had forgotten the season in his perturbation and his desire to show hospitality to a distant cousin newly arrived from America, who was full of curiosity and admiration of the city and cathedral of Saint Cuthbert.
His other guest was a Minor Canon who had just been appointed to instruct and train the choir-boys of the cathedral.
The 'Golden Canon' was of an imposing figure, a fine type of the English country gentleman of the old school—admirably fitted for the post of Chairman of Quarter Sessions.
It was not that he had mistaken his vocation so much as that his vocation had mistaken the canon, for owing to the death of his two elder brothers—one by an accident out hunting, one by drowning at sea when admiral—he had unexpectedly succeeded to the family seat and rich possessions.
On this very day he had driven himself into his prebend's house in the close in his four-in-hand to welcome his young American cousin.
The 'Golden Canon' was of a sturdy build, fair of complexion, a lover of field sports, and an excellent judge of a horse and good claret.
An admirable host, he sat in his arm-chair looking after the comfort of his two companions, passing the Chateau-Laffite, and discoursing learnedly of the ancient glory of the bishopric.
His American cousin was an undergraduate of Harvard, eager as a hawk, keen-faced, avid of every form of life: he drank down his Laffite with evident enjoyment, listening to the music of the water on the weir below, and eagerly following the wisdom of the 'Golden Canon.'
The Minor Canon, on the other hand, was not entirely at his ease, for he was divided between his reverence to his host and his consciousness that it was Lent, for hitherto he had always prided himself upon mortifying the flesh during the Lenten fast.
He was of a delicate and distinguished appearance; not much more than a lad yet,—sensitive and impressionable—one whom the Jesuits of the sixteenth century would have trained to be a 'staff' in their hands to be turned this way and that in the interests of the Church.
Gradually, however, he forgot his scruples in the charm of his surroundings, the good cheer, and his superior's conversation; he helped himself joyfully as the claret went swiftly about, and joined with delight in converse about the great past of the cathedral.
''Tis a thousand pities,' said the 'Golden Canon,' 'to diminish in any way the dignity of the bishop and the dean and chapter, since reverence for the established order of the State is fast dying out.
'Now just as it is thought well to maintain the dignity of the judges on assize by the attendance of the High Sheriff with his javelin men and trumpeters, so it is needful to keep up the estates of the bishops and the deans and chapters.
'In the old days of the great prince bishops,' continued the 'Golden Canon,' 'the successor of St. Cuthbert was in reality a greater power than the successor of St. Augustine. For myself I had rather have reigned and ruled between Tees and Tyne than have lived in Lambeth Palace. I should have had regal powers in regard to jurisdiction, coinage, Chancery, Admiralty dues, and so forth, and when I journeyed to London, on my way to my palace in the Strand, would have lain at my various palaces on my way up.
'Then again as lord of many manors throughout the Palatinate I should have had all the old feudal dues coming in to my treasury—waifs and strays, treasure trove, deodands——'
'And merchet of women?' queried his cousin mischievously.
'Ay,' replied the 'Golden Canon' with a responsive twinkle in his eye, '"merchet of women" also, but as an antiquary I must tell ye that it's not what you two young men would wish it to be——'
He glanced at the blushing face of the Minor Canon, and the eager visage of the undergraduate, and bade them fill their glasses yet again, while they had the chance, for the Chapter's binn of Laffite was now running very low in its deep cellar.
'No,' he went on regretfully, ''twas not the Droit de Seigneur which we have all read of, and perhaps envied, but a fine upon marriage—a feudal due exercised over women, as over all property on the feudal lord's manor. Not but that I take it occasionally the Prince Bishop may have indulged himself in what Richelieu styled "the honest man's recreation," yet the jus primae noctis, of which also you will have heard, was not the privilege of the seigneurial bishops, but the fine or compensation paid to the Church by the impatient bridegroom, who in early days of clerical discipline was enjoined to mortification of the flesh for the first three nights of marriage.
'A lawsuit 'twixt the mayor and corporation of Amiens and the bishop before the Parliament of Paris in the fifteenth century is still on record, and proves this clearly.'
'St. Cuthbert, sir,' interposed the blushing but now emboldened Minor Canon, 'would have severely reprehended Cardinal Richelieu in that event, for 'tis said that the saint had a perfect horror of women; we know of the line drawn beside the cathedral beyond which no woman was allowed to pass.'
'Ay,' responded his host, 'St. Cuthbert was a great saint doubtless, but an extremely ungallant man. He would allow no cow upon Holy Island, for where there was a cow there was a woman, and where there was a woman there was the Devil.'
'Luther and the Reformation changed all that,' said the young American, with a laugh.
'"Who loves not woman, wine and song, He is a fool his whole life long."
'Which of the two is in the right?'
'Luther!' replied the Minor Canon, somewhat unexpectedly, flushed with vol-au-vent and generous claret, who was now beginning to look upon himself as a gay Lothario. 'Asceticism for its own sake is mere vanity.'
'Here's then to Luther!' cried the 'Golden Canon,' with enthusiasm. 'Fill and drink a bumper to his memory!'
'Not but what I regret the Reformation myself, since had it not been for Anne Boleyn, the bishopric might still be a Palatinate and the estates of the canons inviolate.'
Curiously enough the Minor Canon had not on this especial occasion filled up his glass; on the contrary he was now staring in dismay towards the window recess opposite, which was suffused with a pale light. On the right hand there hung a crucifix, and the moonbeams gently illuminated the cross with its burden.
The two cousins continued their gay converse, but the Minor Canon was completely absorbed in his contemplation of a vision which was being unfolded before his affrighted eyes in the recess opposite. A figure took shape in the misty light—the form of an old man rugged of aspect, with grizzled locks like a fisherman's, appeared before his eyes; he held forth his hand and pointed menacingly to the crucifix with fiercely gleaming eyes.
At that very moment there rose up from far away to the ears of the stricken gazer the sound of a cock-crow. The gazer wilted back in his seat; turning white, he held his hands to his eyes, his whole frame trembling. His two companions, who had now been aroused by his movement, looked upon him with astonishment.
'What's the matter, my dear fellow?' inquired the 'Golden Canon.' 'You look as if you had seen a ghost.'
'I thought,' stammered the gazer—'I thought I saw St. Cuthbert—I mean some apparition—in the recess there.'
'It's only the moon,' the 'Golden Canon' replied, after a cursory glance in that direction. 'If you don't like it just draw the curtains.'
But the Minor Canon had already risen from his seat, and, with unsteady footsteps, passed to the door murmuring brokenly to himself, 'Peccavi, peccavi' as he withdrew from the dining-room.
'A nice fellow,' commented the 'Golden Canon,' 'but he has, I fear, a rotten digestion.
'Help yourself to that white port, cousin; then we'll finish our talk over a pipe of tobacco.'
BY THE SHRINE OF SAINT CUTHBERT
The bells were ringing to evensong in the great cathedral dedicated to Saint Cuthbert, that stands like a fortress on its rock above the murmuring Wear—
'Half house of God, half castle 'gainst the Scot'—
in the windy dusk of a November evening.
The people of the saint, however—the 'Haliwer folc,' the 'folk of the Holy Man'—were few in attendance that afternoon, and the great nave seemed very empty as I sat down in a seat in front of the 'Galilee' beside the north door of entry.
I looked about me and admired the mighty Norman pillars diapered and fluted with exceeding skill by the great master builders of old, who built to, even as their great duke swore by, the 'Splendour of God.' My eye wandered upward and rested upon the great chevrons resembling sword-cuts that seemed deep-hacked within the rounded arches of the Triforium. Thence onward my gaze fluttered like a butterfly, and rested upon a leering corbel, which seemed to scoff at priest and priest-craft with protruding tongue. The mighty stone roof soaring aloft—a ship's keel upturned—drew my eye eastward to the choir; there on the great east window, rose-shaped and many-coloured, the invading dusk gathered like water-drops upon the panes, and wove its dun mantle over them. The anthem now pealed along the roof, lapping capitals, corbels, and pillars in a tide of sound that swept unresisted through the wide spaces of the cathedral.
As the echoing song grew fainter, and ebbed away into the twilight shadows, my gaze returned to my immediate surroundings, and rested unconcernedly upon a man sitting a seat or two in front of me, beside one of the massive piers. He seemed to be in a most distressed and nervous condition, for he peered about him with an evident alarm, which was pitiful to witness. As he turned his face about I saw it was haggard with fear and sorrow, or remorse; his hair was matted, and beads of sweat were thick upon his brow.
It was as if he were terrified of impending danger. Yet what could he be afraid of in the great calm of the solemn cathedral? The benediction had been given, and the sparse congregation had now risen and was slowly departing, yet he rose not, but seemed to be hiding from view as he crouched behind the form in front of him, and edged his way slowly within the shadow of the heavy pier to his left hand.
I sat on listening to the voluntary, and it held me by its strangeness. I knew that the Dean and Chapter's organist was away on holiday, and I wondered who the strange player might be who was setting forth his own soul in the notes of the pealing organ. He sang of fellowship, of comradeship in ancient days through stress of adventure and deadly combat; then with organ sobs that shook the heart, of death and the infinite loneliness of death, and of the inappeasable sorrow of the survivor lamenting his Jonathan. A pause of black silence. Then brokenly a little sough of life began to re-arise—a growth of hope—the fierce determination of revenge—quickening with flame—breaking into triumph.
And now as the lights were being turned out, and gloom came rushing in upon the empty spaces of the cathedral I saw the unhappy figure shift indecisively as he rose from his seat in front of me, glance hurriedly about as if for a way of escape, then moving unsteadily round the pier, to my surprise he shuffled off in the direction of the organ. The music seemed to fascinate him, to paralyse his will, even as the sphex paralyses its victim with its sting.
The organist was now engaged upon the coda of his fugue; the former motifs were rehearsed—love, sorrow, and revenge. Triumph resounded from the loft when I heard above the quickening notes a sudden patter of heels across the nave; then a pitiful drumming of fists upon the barred door that led into the east corner of the cloisters. Knowing that escape that way was now impossible for the distracted man, and feeling pity for him, I crossed the nave and followed after him in the gloom. As I drew near I heard him flee again—down the south aisle to the other door of the cloisters. Here once more he shook unavailingly upon the latch, and drummed pitifully with his fists. There was a scrabbling with nails on the oaken door—then a cry of anguish smote on my ear. An awful terror evidently had him in grip.
He rushed wildly on again—on—on to the only remaining door of escape into the northern close. Suddenly the music stopped on a throb of joy. The shock caused me to halt. As I started again to walk towards the door I heard no longer the miserable patter of feet in front of me. I was just about to reach out a hand to feel for the latch in the darkness when I stumbled over an obstacle on the pavement. I knelt down and felt about with my hands: I found a man's body lying inert at my feet.
God in Heaven! The darkness seemed to buffet me upon the ears. I heard a vague cry escape my lips, for the fugitive's hand had dropped from mine with a thud upon the stone. The man was dead.
The soul of the Minister of Bleakhope was disquieted within him, for he had just been 'up the water' and seen the new stained-glass windows which had recently been put in and dedicated to Saint Cuthbert in the English church 'beside the Knowe.'
The Reverend Alexander Macgregor was tall and spare, oval-faced, eyed like a hawk, yet with a humorous twinkle behind his keen glances that were equally alert whether for the rising of a 'troot' or a sinner.
A bequest from a wealthy parishioner, who had died, as the result of a motor-car accident, had enabled his 'brother'—the Episcopalian 'priest'—to decorate his church with three single lights, illustrative of Saint Cuthbert's life, and the Minister grieved as he thought of his own little grey kirk on the bare hill which badly wanted a 'bit colour' in its wee apsidal east window.
He regarded his frayed sleeves and his wrinkled black trousers unhopefully.
If he were to save every penny till the end of his days he could never achieve his desire. He had no wealthy parishioner whom he might persuade into buying a motor-car after seeing that 'the Kirk' had been duly remembered in his will.
His flock consisted chiefly of small farmers and herd laddies, and unless one of them emigrated and made a fortune in Canada he saw no prospect of achievement in the parish itself.
As he walked up the road towards the manse on this particular October evening after his return from the Knowe he came nigh to breaking the tenth Commandment into pieces, for the three light windows seemed to flaunt themselves before his eyes in the gathering mist, and to ask tauntingly, 'What wull ye gie for us? What wull ye gie for us?'
As he plodded onward he was suddenly hailed by a voice from behind. Turning about, he recognised one of his flock—a small fellside farmer—who, coming up with him, informed him that an old acquaintance was staying at the little inn close by who had been inquiring about him.
'Wha is 't?' inquired the Minister.
'Ye'll mind Tam Elliot,' replied the elder, 'him that was nevvy to auld Sandy o' the Ratten Raa farm that died and left him part money. Aff he went when he got the siller, and a bit later an auld great-aunt left him a bit mair, sae he took a muckle big farm doon sooth, and noo he's at the inn cracking crouse aboot his pedigree beasts and sheep, and swankin' awa as to what he's done syne he left these parts, just as if we didna ken the sort o' man he was, and aye will be. Howsoever, he's askin' after ye, and maybe ye'd like a crack wi' him.'
The Minister was on his way home, but he liked his 'crack' as well as another, so he turned eastwards to the little wayside hostelry some quarter of a mile back to forgather with Elliot, who used to attend the kirk 'whiles' in company with his deceased uncle. The 'Sign of the Wool Pack' was a very quiet country inn; in the little 'snug' there would not be above half a dozen customers—the landlord, probably, presiding over them—so the Minister thought no harm in joining them for a glass, a pipe, and a 'crack.'
'Hoo's aal wi' ye?' he inquired, as he entered the door of the 'snug,' and, having nodded to the company, held out his hand to Tam Elliot. 'We hae heard that ye are increasing your flocks like Abraham, doon sooth i' the land o' Canaan!'
'You are welcome, Minister,' cried Tam in reply, as he rose up and took him by the hand; '"wag a paw," as we used to say, and take something for a sore throat. Yes,' he continued, as he sat himself down again and took a pull at his own long glass, 'I'm building up a pedigree stock at my new place—gave L500 for a bull t' other day, and that's a fact.'
'Dod, man!' said the Minister, bethinking him of the stained-glass window, 'why, that's a small fortune.'
''Tis that,' replied Tam complacently, stretching a leg to the hearth, 'but pedigree blood's worth the money.' He caressed a little imperial he had grown since he left the north, stretched out his other leg to the fire, and with a smile of satisfaction that seemed to ooze from his vintage cheeks, continued to talk of his own pedigree.
'Yes, blood's the thing,' he said, 'for beasts and humans alike. Why, take my family—every one knows the clan of Elliot's been on the Border for centuries, and one of my forebears was married on a Stuart lass, so likely enough I may have a bit royal blood i' my veins, even though it comes from the wrong side o' the blanket.'
Here an ancient, bearded shepherd—an elder of the kirk—with a tongue of caustic, Ringan by name, who was sitting behind the Minister, winked derisively at the company and muttered sotto voce, 'He's forgot aal the little yins. I mind fine his granddam—the merry-begot of a pitman's lass doon the water.' The Minister himself could not resist a smile at this, and the visitor added somewhat hastily, 'Yet I say wi' Robbie Burns—"a man's a man for a' that." Have another touch o' this mountain dew,' he cried magnanimously to the scornful herd.
'Na, na, I'm awa,' replied the ancient herd, rising as he spoke; 'it's gettin' late, an' I dinna want to run the risk o' meetin' wi' "Parcy" on my way hame.'
'Parcy!' exclaimed the visitor, raising himself in surprise from his arm-chair. 'Parcy, the ghost o' the murdered mosstrooper, d' ye mean, that the old wives talked of? D' ye mean to tell me ye still believe in ghosts up here?'
'Why not?' said the Minister. ''Tis good Christian doctrine to believe in departed spirits.'
'We don't believe in 'em in the towns,' retorted Elliot scornfully, 'so why should we in the country?'
'Will ye put your faith, or lack o't, tae the proof?' here inquired the caustic ancient herd. 'I'se haud ye a wager ye winna walk doon the burn the morrow nicht at the deid hour, past the stane where "Parcy" was slain, and up on beyond the kirkyaird, and on tae the manse. Maybe it's a mile, an' to-morrow's the nicht o' Hallow E'en when the deid walk. Here's my shilling against whatever ye like to lay doon,' and as the ancient spoke he drew a long, thin leathern purse from his trouser pocket, plucked forth a shilling, and set it down with a bang on the table.
'And there's my sovereign alongside it,' cried the visitor vaingloriously.
'Aweel,' the ancient continued, 'the Meenister can be the stake-holder, an' the landlord can set ye awa as the clock strikes twalve the morrow nicht. If ye win through to the manse your lane ye'll hae won my shillin'; if no', the Meenister will hae a sovereign i' the ladle next Sawbath.'
The landlord assented, the others all approved the suggestion, the Minister placed the stakes carefully into his waistcoat pocket, and the aged shepherd departed, chuckling to himself over his wager.
The Minister continued to converse about ghosts for a minute or more, then he too rose, saying that 'the wife' would be getting nervous if she 'wanted' him much longer.
As soon as he was out upon the road he sped on after the retreating footsteps of the shepherd, and he hailed him through the gloom. As he came up with him he said quietly, 'Come awa to the manse and we'll hae a bit crack.'
* * * * *
Hallow E'en drew on stormy and dark, and Elliot at the inn began to regret that he had ever accepted the wager, though for very shame he could not now withdraw from his forbidding task. At a quarter to twelve then precisely, having fortified himself with a final dram and lighted a cigar, he set forth upon his mission. He knew the path quite well, and could make no pretence at missing his way, but when he had crossed the burn by the shaking little wire suspension bridge sudden fear assailed him. There was a gusty wind sweeping drumly clouds athwart the sky—faintly illuminated by the dying moon; now a few stars appeared momentarily, then a swathe of darkness enveloped all. The old kirkyard, with its tottering headstones grouped around the black kirk, had an eldritch look in the murky night, and Elliot's heart sank into his boots as he drew nigh.
The clouds had lifted as he walked swiftly but unsteadily onward. What was that? He heard something move, and looked about him fearfully. Suddenly from beside the little kirkyard gate a monstrous form rose up—soot-black, horned, and threatening. It advanced upon him, tossing its horrid horns, but without speaking. Could it be 'Auld Clootie' himself?
Elliot's knees became as water; he staggered on, but at that very moment a terrible bray resounded from the hollow on his left, and Elliot, overcome with terror, fell to the earth. 'Minister Macgregor,' he yelled; 'O Minister, come help me! All the devils i' Hell are loosed about me.' The horned figure drew closer, brandishing his horns, and Elliot believing his last hour was come wailed forth his confession of sin.
'I hae done wrang,' he moaned aloud; 'I promised Jeannie to mak her an honest woman, but I haena done it. But I will, I swear it, by Heaven above. Minister Macgregor,' he yelled again, 'come, help me, or I'll gang clean daft.' Shaking like an aspen leaf he lay upon the ground and covered his eyes with his hands, whilst he endeavoured to say a prayer.
Then he felt something touch him on the shoulder, and he broke into an agonised yell.
'Whisht, then, whisht!' said a kindly voice in his ear. A friendly hand gripped him below the oxter, and, peering up, he discerned the Minister.
'Eh, Minister,' cried Elliot in a paroxysm of joy, 'ye hae saved me—saved me,' then he burst into tears.
'Come awa, come awa,' said the Reverend Alexander Macgregor gently, 'come awa up wi' me to the manse.'
Clinging to his benefactor, Elliot rose to his feet and stumbled forward as swiftly as his shaking limbs permitted.
'Whaur is he?' he inquired tremulously, keeking about fearfully.
'Wha d' ye mean?' replied the Minister. 'Is 't "Parcy" ye hae seen?'
'Waur nor that; waur nor that,' replied the other. 'I believe 'twas him.'
'Anither fifty yards an' we'll be hame,' said the Minister. 'See, there's the licht i' the windie showing fine.'
As soon as they were within doors the Minister placed his trembling companion in the old leathern chair in his little sanctum, made up the fire, and poured him out a glass of whisky with hot water from the kettle that was opportunely ready on the hob.
'And now, Minister,' said the rescued one, after imbibing the goodly contents of his glass, 'what can I do for ye by way o' recompense for saving me the night?'
'Did I hear ye confessin' that ye had wranged a lass—by name Jeannie?' asked the minister, seriously, by way of answer.
'Ay, ye did that,' replied the penitent fervently, 'and I swore to right her. I'll mak her my wife at aince; I swear it again—before ye.'
'I'll haud ye to it, mind,' said the Minister gravely; then he inquired thoughtfully, 'What wull ye do by way o' further recompense for being saved the nicht?' He paused. 'Weel,' he continued, 'there's some that had sinned like ye i' the auld times that desired to prove their repentance and their gratitude to Heaven for timeous rescue by some outward an' visible symbol, sic, for example, as building a kirk or foundin' an orphanage.'
'Eh, but, Minister,' ejaculated the penitent, turning white again, 'yon's a work for kings and suchlike, no' for a poor farmer like me.'
'A puir farmer,' commented his mentor, 'is no' ane that gives L500 for a pedigree bull.' There was silence for a while. The penitent groaned within himself as he regarded the implacable face in front of him. Then he said suddenly, 'No a kirk, Minister,' and further ventured wheedlingly, ''tis impossible, but somethin' for the kirk—a new pulpit, for instance, or a bit organ, or some heating for the winter.' The Minister shook his head.
'The kirk disna care aboot organs, and the folk hereawa are hardy and winna want ony heatin',' he replied slowly; then with the twinkle in his eye he explained further, 'No, that is for pleesure purposes.' He reflected a moment or two profoundly, then with a happy inspiration suggested an alternative. 'A stained-glass windie micht be a guid an' righteous gift, I'm thinkin'.'
'That's mair like it,' responded the penitent, almost with joy, finishing off his glass and holding it out suggestively for replenishment.
'Hoo muckle would it come to, think ye—L100 belike?'
The Minister replenished his guest's glass hospitably before replying.
'We'd best mak it guineas,' he said thoughtfully.
'Right!' cried the other, his spirits visibly rising. 'I've got a cheque-book on me, an' I'll write it out for ye this instant moment.'
The Minister took the cheque silently, dried it carefully on his blotting-pad, then tucked it safely away in his Bible.
'An' noo,' he said to his penitent, 'noo I'll set ye awa for the inn.'
'Ye'll never be for turning me out into the darkness again?' wailed Elliot, his face paling perceptibly.
'I'll gang wi' ye,' replied the Minister, 'I'll guide ye; and wi' this,' he took up his heavy 'crook,' 'I'll fettle "Auld Hornie."'
'I don't care about the wager,' continued the other, desirous of putting off the evil moment; 'here's the sovereign—for yourself or the old shepherd.'
Serious as before, the Minister took the sovereign and laid it on the Bible as he said:
'If ye dinna gang back to the inn the landlord an' his lassies will be up a' nicht seekin' ye, an' ye'll be the talk o' the hail countryside.'
His visitor sighed heavily and looked wistfully at the whisky bottle, but the Minister was adamant. 'No' anither sup till the windie's in,' he thought to himself.
'Well, Minister,' said his guest with resignation, as he rose slowly up from his chair, 'I'll go back, but keep a close tongue, ye ken.'
'I'm used to daein' that,' replied the other, as he ushered his guest out into the darkness, and led him back to the 'Wool Pack' without mishap.
On his return the Minister paused by the kirk yett, and thus soliloquised:
'I never cared muckle for that camsterie goat o' Ringan's, but he wis gey useful the nicht there's no denyin', whilst as for auld cuddy, dod! but he was in fell voice, an' cam in punctual as the precentor.' The Reverend Alexander Macgregor thrust out an arm on high, turned about on heel and toe, as though to secret piping. Then he resumed his way to the manse, pondering now what should be the subject of the stained-glass window. Suddenly he stood stock still. He had it! 'It wull represent Palm Sunday—the entry of our Lord intil the Holy Ceety—ridin' in on an ass.'
[Footnote: 1 'Parcy Reed,' the hero of the well-known ballad, was foully slain in Bakinghope above Catcleugh Lough, but his wraith is said to haunt the Rede and to be visible about Rochester.]
On the evening after the stained-glass 'windie' had been set up in the new kirk and dedicated to the memory of Saint Cuthbert, the Reverend Alexander Macgregor and his elder, Ringan Telfer, the ancient 'herd,' sat together in the manse's little 'sanctum' or library, enjoying a 'crack,' a glass of whisky, and a pipe of tobacco.
'It's a gey an' useful thing a ghaist,' said Ringan meditatively. 'It fleys folk fine an' stirs up their conscience graund. I aince thocht I caught a keek o' "Parcy" mysel', but I wasna muckle gliffed, for though I ken fine I'm a sinner, I've naethin' particular on my conscience.
'Mind ye, I dinna ken whether 'twas a wraith I saw or no—for I'd been first footin', ye ken, an' maybe I had a wee drappie i' my e'e.'
'Gey an' likely,' assented the Minister, nodding his head sympathetically, and drawing deep upon his pipe.
'Onnyway, naethin' came o't,' continued Ringan, imbibing thoughtfully from his glass, 'but what I'm thinkin' the noo is that aiblins anither ghaist-gliff micht do a body I ken o' a guid turn.'
'There's many a body that micht be the better of a bit "gliff," but it disna always last, and it's a daungerous game to play at. But wha is the body?' inquired the Minister.
'It's a lang story,' replied the other, as he extracted a document from his pocket, 'but gey easy to understand. Weel, this document is a bit codicil to the will of a far-off cousin o' mine, but it wasna signed, as ye'll note, and i' the eye o' the law, as they call it, o' nae value. Noo the testator, Mistress Wallace, was a widow wi' a bit heritable property the whilk she'd but a life interest in, but she had a bit siller i' the bank, an' 'twas this she was leavin' awa different frae her will by this bit codicil.
'The siller was twa hundred pounds, an' it was lyin' at the bank, and the bank manager got it for various advice—ceevility an' attention paid to Mistress Wallace.
'Weel, there was anither puir widdie—a far-off cousin o' hers, that had a bairn born till her after her man died, and the puir widdie juist askit Mistress Wallace to be its godmither.
'Noo Mistress Wallace had nae bairns o' her ain, ye ken, an' it pleasured her fine to be a godmither to the fatherless bairn, but bein' verra frail i' body, she didna get the codicil signed an' witnessed before her "stroke."
'Weel, the doctor, he kenned aal about the hail matter, an' he gied the puir widdie the bit paper, since he was managin' her bit affairs. He thocht aiblins if the bank manager saw it he micht "pairt"—but deevil a bodle wull he hand ower, though the doctor saw him himsel'.'
The Minister nodded his apprehension, then taking the pipe out of his mouth, inquired, 'Wha was the puir widdie woman?'
'Ye'll ken my sister?' replied Ringan, gazing fixedly at the fire, 'Effie that was marrit on puir Jock Ord—a fine laddie he was—verra knowledgeable wi' sheep, wha perished in a snowstorm, mindin' his hirsel.
'She was left gey ill aff, an' noo wi' a bairn to provide for, hard pit till 't. Twa hundred punds wull provide for his upbringin', an' aiblins turn him into a meenister at the finish.'
'Ay,' replied the Minister,' I mind Effie well, puir decent body, for didna I marry them? An' I heard tell o' her man's death, but I hadna seen nither since they went herdin' ower the Carter Bar. But whaur does the "ghaist" come intil the story?' inquired the speaker in conclusion.
Ringan continued to contemplate the fire with fixed attention, then slowly delivered himself as follows:
'I'm hearin' that the Burnside Field Club wull be comin' up the water to hold their meetin' here shortly, an' to view the Roman Camp. I mind they were here ten years before, an' this year the president is the bank manager doon at the auld toon, wha has gruppit the siller I've tell't ye aboot. Weel, ye'll ken him, an' aiblins,' here the speaker took up the bellows and thoughtfully assisted the fire's respiration, 'aiblins it wud be a ceevil matter to offer to gie him a night's lodgin', for it's a gey lang way up frae the auld toon, an' the manager's gettin' gey white aboot the pow.'
Here the speaker laid down the bellows, then took up his glass thoughtfully, drained it off slowly, and resumed his contemplation of the fire.
The Minister also refreshed himself, then, keenly watching his companion from the tail of his eye, admitted an acquaintanceship with the bank manager.
'Ay, I ken him. He's a verra decent body—a bit near maybe, an' terribly superfeecial i' antiquarian knowledge. I mind I had a bit differ wi' him the time he was last up at the Camp.
'But supposin' I was inclined to be ceevil till him—what then?'
'Then aiblins,' replied the elder, stooping and knocking the ashes from his pipe against the fender, 'there micht be a bit gliff, an' this bit paper micht come in gey useful by way o' stirrin' up his conscience the whilk, I'm thinkin', has been growin' stiff i' his auld age. If it disna there's nae harm dune.'
The Minister thrust out his legs, and gazed up at the ceiling.
'Was it Dr. Thomson that tended Effie, an' that saw the manager?'
'Ay, 'twas him,' replied his companion.
There was a pause of silence after this response, the elder gazing abstractedly into the fire, the Minister surveying his ceiling, yet all the while out of the tail of his eye keeping watch on his elder.
Ultra sardonic he was, reflected the watcher affectionately, intolerant, plus Calviniste que Calvin meme—sceptical of the world, with up-twisted eyebrows that seemed to signify a perpetual interrogation, yet faithful unto death to his duty and his own ideals. He minded well assisting to dig Ringan out of a snowdrift wherein he was seated, calmly tending a ewe and her two tiny lambs.
'Aweel,' said the Minister, breaking the silence, 'I micht—be offerin' hospitality to Macmanus, the banker; 'twould be the ceevil thing to do, but if he comes he's my guest, ye ken—I maunna hae ony "frightfulness"; an' the cuddy wull be locked up.'
'Ay,' responded the other, 'an' sae wull the goat be.'
'I ken naethin' aboot that,' retorted the other, bringing his gaze down from the ceiling to rest upon the swag-bellied green bottle on the table beside him.
'It's gettin' on intil the "wee sma' hours ayont the twal,"' he added; 'ye mun hae a "deoch-an-doruis" afore startin' "aff."'
'Deed, an' I wull,' replied Ringan, as he rose up and held out his glass, whilst wrapping his plaid about his shoulders.
Fergus Macmanus, bank manager, amateur antiquary, and President of the Burnside Field Club, accepted the invitation from the Reverend Alexander Macgregor, and returned with him from the Roman Camp to the manse for the night after a successful meeting, whereat he had given an address on Castrametation and the Roman Wall, which had abundantly satisfied himself, if not his host.
Macmanus was a short, thick-set, well-preserved man of some seventy years of age, with a complexion reminiscent of Harvest Festival. His Pauline motto of 'All things to all men' was a little impeded by an assurance of infallibility which he founded upon his 'common-sense view of things.' Hence after supper he proceeded to demonstrate to his host that all the theorists were wrong; that he had walked along the line of the wall and satisfied himself that wall and vallum were not contemporaneous, and that if Hadrian had made any use of the vallum—an early dyke or limes—it was merely for the screening of his troops whilst the wall was building.
'Common sense,' retorted the Minister, 'willna tak ye verra far. Common sense assures me the world is flat, an' stands stock still in the centre o' things.'
'Common sense,' echoed his companion; 'man alive! why it includes the use of all the rational faculties. What I mean is that folk get wedded to a theory and disregard the practical side o' things. Noo the Romans were first and foremost a practical people, as a'body kens. They made sure o' their conquest, an' then built their wall, sae that the popular theory that the vallum was a protection against the south is a' stuff an' nonsense.'
'Isna the result,' queried the Minister, 'that ye haud ane theory, ither folks anither?'
'If a thorough excavation were carried out many secrets micht be discovered, but noo folks prefer to travel an' dig i' the remotest pairts o' the earth, an' no' at home.'
'Aweel,' the Minister continued, with a sudden deft twist to the conversation, 'it's no excavation o' the earth that's interestin' me the noo—it's the excavation o' the mind. I have been readin' o' what a clever doctor chield has accomplished i' Edinbro' by the pooer o' mind upon mind——'
'Ye mean Christian Science—Faith-Healing?' queried his companion scornfully.
'Na, na,' returned the Minister, 'he ca's it Psycho-therapeutics—an' has worked miracles by it. For an instance, he actually operated wi' the knife on a puir body withoot any chloroform, ether, or anaesthetic whatever—an' the patient ne'er had a wink o' pain under it. His consciousness was under control, ye ken, directed clean awa from thocht o' pain——'
'I'd like to see the man that could mak me believe he'd gien me security for his overdraft when he hadna,' interrupted his companion satirically.
'I think I hae heard o' the thing haein' been accomplished, natheless,' returned the Minister with a twinkle in his eye.
'Man!' acknowledged the banker with a smile, 'but ye're gleg.'
The two men surveyed each other silently, like fencers awaiting feint or lunge, when suddenly a peal of thunder echoed on the air and shook the windows of the sanctum.
'A thunderstorm,' said the banker, 'i' the distance. Well, there's ane thing I'd be glad to hear o' frae your new doctor, an' that is no' to be gliffed by thunner an' lightin'. I was verra nigh struck by a flash when I was a bairn oot fishin' for troots—an' I canna get the better o't.'
''Tis a lang way off,' replied the Minister, rising and looking out o' window; 'weel, it's bedtime, I'm thinkin'. Ye mun juist have a night-cap before retiring.'
Nothing loath, his guest fortified himself handsomely, and was escorted to his bedroom by his host.
Entering his own room, which was opposite the other, the Minister proceeded to undress, leaving the door ajar advisedly, in the event of any strategy of Ringan's contriving.
He lay awake some while in watchful expectation, but as the thunderstorm had passed over and no other sound was audible, he shortly fell sound asleep.
Suddenly he was roused by the most extraordinary noise. The manse seemed to be shaken to its foundation.
He started up in bed. Could a flash of lightning have hit the chimney?
Then he saw a light without on the landing, heard footsteps, and a voice calling him by name.
'Minister Macgregor,' it called. 'The house has been struck wi' lightnin', I'm certain.'
The Minister hurried out on to the landing, and seeing his guest, by the light of the candle which he held in his shaking hand, to be much perturbed, endeavoured to comfort him.
'It was a fearfu' noise yon; it wakened me up oot o' the sleep o' the just,' he said. 'I thocht the chimney mun have been stricken, but if sae, stanes wud hae come through the roof. Maist likely the auld ash-tree by the door has been stricken. Hark!' he added, 'I think the storm's past, for it's rainin' hard enoo.'
Somewhat reassured, his guest was induced to return to bed, and after the Minister left him he heard the door bolted behind him.
The Minister went back to his own bed, but this time he refused to lie down, for he felt assured that Ringan was up to some fresh cantrip or other, and he wished to forestall him.
The rain shortly ceased, and a faint moonlight showed itself through the window. Almost at the same time the Minister was aware of stealthy soft footings on the stairs without. Noiselessly he approached his open door, and there he saw by the dim skylight a tall figure moving on stockinged feet at the stair-head. Was it a burglar? he thought fearfully. 'No, it was Ringan. But what on earth was he carrying?