GILIAN THE DREAMER
Gilian the Dreamer, His Fancy, His Love and Adventure
By Neil Munro
Author of 'John Splendid' 'The Lost Pibroch' &c.
GILIAN THE DREAMER
CHAPTER I—WHEN THE GEAN-TREE BLOSSOMED
Rain was beating on the open leaf of plane and beech, and rapping at the black doors of the ash-bud, and the scent of the gean-tree flourish hung round the road by the river, vague, sweet, haunting, like a recollection of the magic and forgotten gardens of youth. Over the high and numerous hills, mountains of deer and antique forest, went the mist, a slattern, trailing a ragged gown. The river sucked below the banks and clamoured on the cascades, drawn unwillingly to the sea, the old gluttonous sea that must ever be robbing the glens of their gathered waters. And the birds were at their loving, or the building of their homes, flying among the bushes, trolling upon the bough. One with an eye, as the saying goes, could scarcely pass among this travail of the new year without some pleasure in the spectacle, though the rain might drench him to the skin. He could not but joy in the thrusting crook of the fern and bracken; what sort of heart was his if it did not lift and swell to see the new fresh green blown upon the grey parks, to see the hedges burst, the young firs of the Blaranbui prick up among the slower elder pines and oaks?
Some of the soul and rapture of the day fell with the rain upon the boy. He hurried with bare feet along the river-side from the glen to the town, a bearer of news, old news of its kind, yet great news too, but now and then he would linger in the odour of the bloom that sprayed the gean-tree like a fall of snow, or he would cast an eye admiring upon the turgid river, washing from bank to bank, and feel the strange uneasiness of wonder and surmise, the same that comes from mists that swirl in gorges of the hills or haunt old ancient woods. The sigh of the wind seemed to be for his peculiar ear. The nod of the saugh leaf on the banks was a salutation. There is, in a flutter of the tree's young plumage, some hint of communication whose secret we lose as we age, and the boy, among it, felt the warmth of companionship. But the sights were for the errant moments of his mind; his thoughts, most of the way, were on his message.
He was a boy with a timid and wondering eye, a type to be seen often in those parts, and his hair blew from under his bonnet, a toss of white and gold, as it blew below the helms of the old sea-rovers. He was from Ladyfield, hastening as I say with great news though common news enough of its kind—the news that the goodwife of Ladyfield was dead.
If this were a tale of the imagination, and my task was not a work of history but to pleasure common people about a hearth, who ever love the familiar emotions in their heroes, I would credit my hero with grief. For here was his last friend gone, here was he orphaned for ever. The door of Ladyfield, where he was born and where he had slept without an absent night since first his cry rose there, a coronach in the ears of his dying mother, would be shut against him; the stranger would bar the gates at evening, the sheep upon the hills would have another keel-mark than the old one on their fleecy sides. Surely the sobs that sometimes rose up in his throat were the utter surrender of sorrow; were the tears that mingled with the rain-drops on his cheek not griefs most bitter essence? For indeed he had loved the old shrunk woman, wrinkled and brown like a nut, with a love that our race makes no parade of, but feels to the very core.
But in truth, as he went sobbing in his loneliness down the river-side, a regard for the manner of his message busied him more than the matter of it. It was not every Friday a boy had a task so momentous had the chance to come upon households with intelligence so unsettling. They would be sitting about the table, perhaps, or spinning by the fire, the good-wife of Ladyfield still for them a living, breathing body, home among her herds, and he would come in among them and in a word bring her to their notice in all death's great monopoly. It was a duty to be done with care if he would avail himself of the whole value of so rare a chance. A mere clod would be for entering with a weeping face, to blurt his secret in shaking sentences, or would let it slip out in an indifferent tone, as one might speak of some common occurrence. But Gilian, as he went, busied himself on how he should convey most tellingly the story he brought down the glen. Should he lead up to his news by gradual steps or give it forth like an alarum? It would be a fine and rare experience to watch them for a little, as they looked and spoke with common cheerfulness, never guessing why he was there, then shock them with the intelligence, but he dare not let them think he felt so little the weightiness of his message that his mind was ready to dwell on trivialities. Should it be in Gaelic or in English he should tell them? Their first salutations would be in the speech of the glens; it would be, "Oh Gilian, little hero! fair fellow! there you are! sit down and have town bread, and sugar on its butter," and if he followed the usual custom he would answer in the same tongue. But between "Tha bean Lecknamban air falbh" and "The wife of Ladyfield is gone," there must be some careful choice. The Gaelic of it was closer on the feelings of the event; the words some way seemed to make plain the emptiness of the farmhouse. When he said them, the people would think all at once of the little brown wrinkled dame, no more to be bustling about the kitchen, of her wheel silent, of her foot no more upon the blue flagstones of the milk-house, of her voice no more in the chamber where they had so often known her hospitality. The English, indeed, when he thought of it with its phrase a mere borrowing from the Gaelic, seemed an affectation. No, it must be in the natural tongue his tidings should be told. He would rap at the door hurriedly, lift the sneck before any response came, go in with his bonnet in his hand, and say "Tha bean Lecknamban air falbh" with a great simplicity.
And thus as he debated and determined in his mind, he was hastening through a country that in another mood would be demanding his attention almost at every step of the way. Ladyfield is at the barren end of the glen—barren of trees, but rich in heather, and myrtle, and grass—surrounded by full and swelling hills. The river, but for the gluttonous sea that must be sucking it down, would choose, if it might, to linger in the valley here for ever, and in summer it loiters on many pretences, twining out and in, hiding behind Baracaldine and the bushes of Tom-an-Dearc, and pretending to doze in the long broad levels of Kincreggan, so that it may not too soon lose its freedom in so magic a place. But the glen opens out anon, woods and parks cluster, and the Duke's gardens and multitudes of roads come into view. The deer stamp and flee among the grasses, flowers grow in more profusion than up the glen where no woods shelter. There are trim houses by the wayside, with men about the doors talking with loud cheerfulness, and laughing in the way of inn-frequenters. A gateway from solitude, an entrance to a region where the most startling and varied things were ever happening, to a boy from the glen this town end of the valley is a sample of Paradise for beauty and interest. Gilian went through it with his blue eyes blurred to-day, but for wont he found it full of charms and fancies. To go under its white-harled archways on a market day was to come upon a new world, and yet not all a new world, for its spectacles of life and movement—the busy street, the clanging pavement, the noisy closes, the quay ever sounding with the high calls of mariners and fishers—seemed sometimes to strike a chord of memory. At the first experience of this busy community, the innumerable children playing before the school, and the women with wide flowing clothes, and flowered bonnets on their heads, though so different from the children of the glen and its familiar dames with piped caps, or maids with snooded locks—all was pleasant to his wondering view. He seemed to know and understand them at the first glance, deeper even than he knew or understood the common surroundings of his life in Ladyfield; he felt at times more comfort in the air of those lanes and closes though unpleasantly they might smell (if it was the curing season and the gut-pots reeked at the quay) than in the winds of the place he came from, the winds of the wilds, so indifferent to mankind, the winds of the woods, sacred to the ghosts, among whom a boy in a kilt was an intruder, the winds of the hills, that come blowing from round the universe and on the most peaceful days are but momentary visitors, stopping but to tap with a branch at the window, or whistle mockingly in a vent.
In spite of their mockery of him, Gilian always loved the children of the town. At first when they used to see him come through the arches walking hurriedly, feeling his feet in unaccustomed shoes awkward and unmanageable, and the polish of his face a thing unbearable, they would come up in wonder on his heels and guess at his identity, then taunt him for the rustic nature of his clothing.
"Crotal-coat, crotal-coat, there are peats in your brogues!" they would cry; or "Hielan'-man, hielan'-man, go home for your fuarag and brose!"
They were strange new creatures to him, foreigners quite, and cruel, speaking freely a tongue he knew not but in broken parts, yet deep in his innermost there was a strange feeling that he was of their kind. He wished he could join them in their English play, or better far, that he might take them to the eagle's nest in Stob Bhan, or the badgers' hamlet in Blaranbui, or show them his skill to fetch the deer at a call, in the rutting time, from the mud-wallows above Carnus. But even yet, he was only a stranger to the boys of the town, and as he went down the street in the drenching rain that filled the syvers to overflowing and rose in a smoke from the calm waters of the bay, they cried "Crotal-coat, crotal-coat," after him.
"Ah," said he to himself, inly pleased at their ignorance, "if I cared, could I not make them ashamed, by telling them they were mocking a boy without a home?"
Kept by the rain closer than usual to the shelter of the closes, the scamps to-day went further than ever in their efforts to annoy the stranger; they rolled stones along the causey so that they caught him on the heels, and they ran out at the back ends of their closes as he passed, and into others still before him, so that his progress down the town was to run a gauntlet of jeers. But he paid no heed; he was of that gifted nature that at times can treat the most bitter insults with indifference, and his mind was taken up with the manner of his message.
When he came to the Cross-houses he cast about for the right close in a place where they were so numerous that they had always confused him, and a middle-aged woman with bare thick arms came out to help him.
"You'll be looking for some one?" said she in Gaelic, knowing him no town boy.
He was standing as she spoke to him in a close that had seemed the one he sought, and he turned to tell her where he was going.
"Oh yes," said the woman, "I know her well. And you'll be from the glen, and what's your errand in the town to-day? You are from Drimfern? No, Ladyfield! It is a fine place Ladyfield; and how is the goodwife there?"
"She is dead," said Gilian hurriedly.
"God, and that is a pity too!" said the woman, content now that the news was hers. "You are in the very close you are looking for," and she turned and hurried up the street to spread the news as fast as could be.
The boy turned away, angry with himself to have blurted out his news to the first stranger with the curiosity to question him, and halfway up the stairs he had to pause a little to get in the right mood for his errand. Then he went up the remaining steps and rapped at the door.
"Come in," cried a frank and hearty woman's voice. He put down the sneck with his thumb and pushed in the door and followed.
A little window facing the sea gave light to the interior, that would have been dull and mean but for the brilliant delf upon the dresser rack and the cleanliness of all things and the smiling faces of Jean Clerk and her sister. The hum of Jean's wheel had filled the chamber as he entered; now it was stilled and the spinner sat with the wool pinched in her fingers, as she welcomed her little relative. Her sister—Aliset Dhu they called her, and if black she was, it had been long ago, for now her hair was like the drifted snow—stood behind her, looking up from her girdle where oaten bannocks toasted.
He stood with his bonnet in his hand. Against his will the grief of his loss swept over him more masterfully than it had yet done, for those two sisters had never been seen by him before except in the company of their relative the little old woman with a face like a nut, and the sobs that shook him were checked by no reflection of the play-actor. He was incapable of utterance.
"O my boy, my boy!" cried Jean Clerk. "Do I not know your story? I dreamt last night I saw a white horse galloping over Tombreck to Ladyfield and the rider of him had his face in his plaid. Peace with her, and her share of Paradise!"
And thus my hero, who thought so much upon the way of his message, had no need to convey it any way at all.
CHAPTER II—THE PENSIONERS
"Go round," said Jean Clerk, "and tell the Paymaster; he'll be the sorry man to lose his manager."
"Will he be in his house?" asked Gilian, eating the last of his town bread with butter and sugar.
"In his house indeed!" cried Jean, her eyes still red with weeping. "It is easy to see you are from the glen, when at this time of day you would be for seeking a gentleman soldier in his own house in this town. No! no! go round to Sergeant More's change-house, at the quay-head, and you'll find the Captain there with his cronies."
So round went Gilian, and there he came upon the pensioners, with Captain John Campbell, late Paymaster of his Majesty's 46th Foot, at their head.
The pensioners, the officers, ah! when I look up the silent street of the town nowadays and see the old houses empty but for weavers, and merchants, and mechanics, people of useful purposes but little manly interest, and know that all we have of martial glory is a dust under a score of tombstones in the yard, I find it ill to believe that ever wars were bringing trade for youth and valour to our midst. The warriors are gone; they do not fight their battles over any more at a meridian dram, or late sitting about the bowl where the Trinidad lemon floated in slices on the philtre of joy. They are up bye yonder in the shadow of the rock with the sea grumbling constantly beside them, and their names and offices, and the dignities of their battles, and the long number of their years, are carved deeply, but not deeply enough, for what is there of their fame and valour to the fore when the threshing rain and the crumbling frost have worn the legend off the freestone slab? We are left stranded high and dry upon times of peace, but the old war-dogs, old heroes, old gentles of the stock and cane—they had seen the glories of life, and felt the zest of it. Bustling times! the drums beat at the Cross in those days, the trumpeters playing alluringly up the lanes to young hearts to come away; pipers squeezed out upon their instruments the fine tunes that in the time I speak of no lad of Gaelic blood could hear but he must down with the flail or sheep-hook and on with the philabeg and up with the sword. Gentlemen were for ever going to wars or coming from them; were they not of the clan, was not the Duke their cousin, as the way of putting it was, and by his gracious offices many a pock-pudding English corps got a colonel with a touch of the Gaelic in his word of command as well as in his temper. They went away ensigns—some of them indeed went to the very tail of the rank and file with Mistress Musket the brown besom—and they came back Majors-General, with wounds and pensions. "Is not this a proud day for the town with three Generals standing at the Cross?" said the Paymaster once, looking with pride at his brother and Turner of Maam and Campbell of Strachur standing together leaning on their rattans at a market. It was in the Indies I think that this same brother the General, parading his command before a battle, came upon John, an ensign newly to the front with a draft from the sea.
"Who sent you here, brother John?" said he, when the parade was over. "You would be better at home in the Highlands feeding your mother's hens."
In one way it might have been better, in another way it was well enough for John Campbell to be there. He might have had the luck to see more battles in busier parts of the world, as General Dugald did, or Colin, who led the Royal Scots at Salamanca, Vittoria, and Waterloo; but he might have done worse, for he of all those gallants came home at the end a hale man, with neither sabre-cut nor bullet. To give him his due he was willing enough to risk them all. It bittered his life at the last, that behind his back his townspeople should call him "Old Mars," in an irony he was keen enough to feel the thrust of.
"Captain Mars, Captain Mars, Who never saw wars,"
said Evan MacColl, the bard of the parish, and the name stuck as the bye-names of that wonderful town have a way of doing.
"Old Mars," Paymaster, sat among the pensioners in the change-house of the Sergeant More when Gilian came to the door. His neck overflowed in waves of fat upon a silk stock that might have throttled a man who had not worn the king's stock in hot lands over sea; his stockings fitted tightly on as neat a leg as ever a kilt displayed, though the kilt was not nowadays John Campbell's wear but kerseymore knee-breeches. He had a figured vest strewn deep with snuff that he kept loose in a pocket (the regiment's gold mull was his purse), and a scratch wig of brown sat askew on his bullet head, raking with a soldier's swagger. He had his long rattan on the table before him, and now and then he would lift its tasseled head and beat time lightly to the chorus of Dugald MacNicol's song. Dugald was Major once of the 1st Royals; he had carried the sword in the Indies, East and West, and in the bloody Peninsula, and came home with a sabre-slash on the side of the head, so that he was a little weak-witted. When he would be leaving his sister's door to go for the meridian dram at the quay-head he would dart for cover to the Cross, then creep from close to close, and round the church, and up the Ferry Land, in a dread of lurking enemies; yet no one jeered at his want, no boy failed to touch his bonnet to him, for he was the gentleman in the very weakest moment of his disease. He had but one song in his budget:
"O come and gather round me, lads, and help the chorus through, When I tell you how we fought the French on the plains of Waterloo."
He sang it in a high quavering voice with curious lapses in the vigour of his singing and cloudings in the fire of his eyes, so that now and then the company would have to jolt him awake to give the air more lustily. Colonel Hall was there (of St John's) and Captain Sandy Campbell of the Marines, Bob MacGibbon, old Lochgair, the Fiscal with a ruffled shirt, and Doctor Anderson. The Paymaster's brothers were not there, for though he was the brother with the money they were field-officers and they never forgot it.
The chorus was ringing, the glasses and the Paymaster's stick were rapping on the table, the Sergeant More, with a blue brattie tied tight across his paunch to lessen its unsoldierly amplitude, went out and in with the gill-stoups, pausing now and then on the errand to lean against the door of the room with the empty tray in his hand, drumming on it with his finger-tips and joining in the officers' owercome.
He turned in the middle of a chorus, for the boy was standing abashed in the entry, his natural fears at meeting the Paymaster greatly increased by the sound of revelry.
"Well, little hero," said the Sergeant More, in friendly Gaelic, "are you seeking any one?"
"I was sent to see the Paymaster, if it's your will," said Gilian, with his eyes falling below the scrutiny of this swarthy old sergeant.
"The Paymaster!" cried the landlord, shutting the door of the room ere he said it, and uplifting farmed hands, "God's grace! do not talk of the Paymaster here! He is Captain Campbell, mind, late of his Majesty's 46th Foot, with a pension of L4 a week, and a great deal of money it is for the country to be paying to a gentleman who never saw of wars but skirmish with the Syke. Nothing but Captain, mind you, and do not forget the salute, so, with the right hand up and thumb on a line with the right eyebrow. But could your business not be waiting? If it is Miss Mary who sent for him it is not very reasonable of her, for he is here no longer than twenty minutes, and it is not sheepshead broth day, I know, because I saw her servant lass down at the quay for herrings an hour ago. Captain, mind, it must be that for him even with old soldiers like myself. I would not dare Paymaster him, it is a name that has a trade ring about it that suits ill with his Highland dignity. Captain, Captain!"
Gilian stood in front of this spate of talk, becoming more diffident and fearful every moment. He had never had any thought as to how he should tell the Paymaster that the goodwife of Ladyfield was dead, that was a task he had expected to be left to some one else, but Jean Clerk and her sister had a cunning enough purpose in making him the bearer of the news.
"I am to tell him the goodwife of Ladyfield is dead," he explained, stammering, to the Sergeant More.
"Dead!" said John More. "Now is not that wonderful?" He leaned against the door as he had leaned many a time against sentry-box and barrack wall, and dwelt a little upon memory. "Is not that wonderful? The first time I saw her was at a wedding in Karnes, Lochow, and she was the handsomest woman in the room, and there were sixty people at the wedding from all parts, and sixty-nine roasted hens at the supper. Well, well—dead! blessings with her; did I not know her well? Yes, and I knew her husband too, Long Angus, since the first day he came to Ladyfield for Old Mar—for the Paymaster—till the last day he came down the glen in a cart, and he was the only sober body in the funeral, perhaps because it was his own. Many a time I wondered that the widow did so well in the farm for Captain Campbell, with no man to help her, the sowing and the shearing, the dipping and the clipping, ploughmen and herds to keep an eye on, and bargains to make with wool merchants and drovers. Oh! she was a clever woman, your grandmother. And now she's dead. Well, it's a way they have at her age! And the Paymaster must be told, though I know it will vex him greatly, because he is a sort of man who does not relish changes. Mind now you say Captain; you need not say Captain Campbell, but just Captain, and maybe a 'sir' now and then. I suppose you could not put off telling him for a half-hour or thereabouts longer, when he would be going home for dinner any way; it is a pity to spoil an old gentleman's meridian dram with melancholy news. No. You were just told to come straight away and tell him—well, it is the good soldier who makes no deviation from the word of command. Come away in then and—Captain mind—and the salute."
The Sergeant More threw open the door of the room, filled up the space a second and gave a sort of free-and-easy salute. "A message for you, Captain," said he.
The singing was done. The Major's mind was wandering over the plains of Waterloo to guess by the vacancy of his gaze; on his left Bob MacGibbon smoked a black segar, the others talked of townsmen still in the army and of others buried under the walls of Badajos. They all turned when the Sergeant More spoke, and they saw him push before him into the room the little boy of Ladyfield with his bonnet in his hand and his eyes restless and timid like pigeons at a strange gate fluttering.
"Ho! Gilian, it is you?" said the Paymaster, with a very hearty voice; then he seemed to guess the nature of the message, for his voice softened from the loud and bumptious tone it had for ordinary. "How is it in Lecknamban?" he asked in the Gaelic, and Gilian told him, minding duly his "sir" and his "Captain" and his salute.
"Dead!" said the Paymaster, "Blessings with her!" Then he turned to his companions and in English—"The best woman in the three parishes and the cleverest. She could put her hand to anything and now she's no more. I think that's the last of Ladyfield for me. I liked to go up now and then and go about the hill and do a little bargaining at a wool market, or haggle over a pound with a drover at the fair, but the farm did little more than pay me and I had almost given it up when her husband died."
He looked flushed and uncomfortable. His stock seemed to fit him more tightly than before and his wig sat more askew than ever upon his bald head. For a little he seemed to forget the young messenger still standing in the room, no higher than the table whereon the glasses ranged. Gilian turned his bonnet about in his hand and twisted the ribbons till they tore, then he thought with a shock of the scolding he would get for spoiling his Sunday bonnet, but the thought was quickly followed by the recollection that she who would have scolded him would chide no more.
The pensioners shared their attention between the Paymaster and the boy. While the Paymaster gave them the state of his gentleman farming (about which the town was always curious), they looked at him and wondered at a man who had seen the world and had L4 a week of a pension wasting life with a paltry three-hundred sheep farm instead of spending his money royally with a bang. When his confidence seemed likely to carry their knowledge of his affairs no further than the town's gossip had already brought it, they lost their interest in his reflections and had time to feel sorry for the boy. None of them but knew he was an orphan in the most grievous sense of the term, without a relative in the wide world, and that his future was something of a problem.
Bob MacGibbon—he was Captain in the 79th—leaned forward and tried to put his hand upon the child's shoulder, not unkindly, but with a rough playfulness of the soldier. Gilian shrank back, his face flushing crimson, then he realised the stupidity of his shyness and tried to amend it by coming a little farther into the room and awkwardly attempting the salute in which the Sergeant More had tutored him. The company was amused at the courtesy, but no one laughed. In a low voice the Paymaster swore. He was a man given to swearing with no great variety in his oaths, that were merely a camp phrase or two at the most, repeated over and over again, till they had lost all their original meanings and could be uttered in front of Dr. Colin himself without any objection to them. In print they would look wicked, so they must be fancied by such as would have the complete picture of the elderly soldier with the thick neck and the scratch wig. The Sergeant More had gently withdrawn himself and shut the door behind him the more conveniently to hear what reception the messenger's tidings would meet with from the Paymaster. And the boy felt himself cut off most helplessly from escape out of that fearful new surrounding. It haunted him for many a day, the strong smell of the spirits and the sharp odour of the slices floating in the glasses, for our pensioners were extravagant enough to flavour even the cold midday drams of the Abercrombie with the lemon's juice. Gilian shifted from leg to leg and turned his bonnet continuously, and through his mind there darted many thoughts about this curious place and company that he had happened upon. As they looked at him he felt the darting tremor of the fawn in the thicket, but alas he was trapped! How old they were! How odd they looked in their high collars and those bands wound round their necks! They were not farmers, nor shepherds, nor fishermen, nor even shopkeepers; they were people with some manner of life beyond his guessing. The Paymaster of course he knew; he had seen him often come up to Ladyfield, to talk to the goodwife about the farm and the clipping, to pay her money twice yearly that was called wages, and was so little that it was scarcely worth the name. Six men in a room, all gentle (by their clothes), all with nothing better to do than stare at a boy who could not stare back! How many things they had seen; how many thoughts they must share between them! He wished himself on the other side of Aora river in the stillness of Kincreggan wood, or on the hill among the sheep—anywhere away from the presence of those old men with the keen scrutiny in their eyes, doubtless knowing all about him and seeing his very thoughts. Had they been shepherds, or even the clever gillies that sometimes came to the kitchen of Ladyfield on nights of ceilidh or gossip, he would have felt himself their equal. He would have been comfortable in feeling that however much they might know about the hills, and woods, and wild beasts, it was likely enough better known to himself, who lived among them and loved them. And the thoughts of the gillie, and the shepherd, were rarely beyond his shrewd guess as he looked at them; they had but to say a word or two, and he knew the end of their story from the beginning. But these old gentlemen were as far beyond his understanding as Gillesbeg Aotram, the wanderer who came about the glens and was called daft by the people who did not know, as Gilian did, that he was wiser than themselves.
The Paymaster took his rattan and knocked noisily on the table for the landlord.
The Sergeant More stepped softly on his tiptoes six steps into the kitchen, then six steps noisily back again and put his head in.
"What's your will, Captain?" said he, polishing a tray with the corner of his brattie.
"Give this boy some dinner, for me," said the Paymaster. "There is nothing at our place to-day but herrings, and it's the poorest of meals for melancholy. Miss Mary would make it all the more melancholy with her weeping over the goodwife of Ladyfield."
Gilian went out with the Sergeant More and made a feeble pretence at eating his second dinner that day.
CHAPTER III—THE FUNERAL
All the glen came to the funeral, and people of Lochowside on either side from Stronmealachan to Eredine, and many of the folk of Glen Shira and the town. A day of pleasant weather, with a warm wind from the west, full of wholesome dryness for the soil that was still clogged with the rains of spring. It filled the wood of Kincreggan with sounds, with the rasping and creaking of branches and the rustle of leaves, and the road by the river under the gean-trees was strewn with the broken blossom.
The burial ground of Kilmalieu lies at the foot of a tall hill beside the sea, a hill grown thick with ancient wood. The roots come sometimes under the walls and below the old tombstones and set them ajee upon their bases, but wanting those tall and overhanging companions, the yard, I feel, would be ugly and incomplete. It is in a soothing melancholy one may hear the tide lapping on the rocks below and the wood-bird call in the trees above. They have been doing so in the ears of Kilmalieu for numberless generations, those voices everlasting but unheard by the quiet folk sleeping snug and sound among the clods. Sun shines there and rain falls on it till it soaks to the very bones of the old Parson, first to lie there, and in sun or rain there grow the laurel-bushes that have the smell of death, and the gay flowers cluster in a profusion found nowhere else in the parish except it be in the garden of the Duke. The lily nods in the wind, the columbine hangs its bell, there the snowdrop first appears and the hip-rose shows her richest blossoms. On Sundays the children go up and walk among the stones over the graves of their grandfathers and they smell the flowers they would not pluck. Sometimes they will put a cap on the side of a cherub head that tops a stone and the humour of the grinning face will create a moment's laughter, but it is soon checked and they walk among the graves in a more seemly peace.
They buried the goodwife of Ladyfield in her appointed place beside her husband and her only child, Gilian taking a cord at the head of the coffin as it was lowered into the red jaws of the grave prepared for it. The earth thudded on the lid, the spades patted the mould, the people moved off, and he was standing yet, listening to the bird that shook a song of passionate melody from its little throat as it becked upon a table tombstone. It was a simple song, he had heard it a thousand times before and wondered at the hidden meaning of it, and now it puzzled him anew that it should encroach upon so solemn an hour in thoughtless love or merriment.
The men were on their way home over the New Bridge, treading heavily, and yet light-headed, for they had the Paymaster's dram at the "lifting" at Ladyfield in them, and the Paymaster himself was narrating to old Rixa, the Sheriff, and Donacha Breck his story, told a hundred times before, of Long Dan MacIntyre, who never came up past the New Bridge, except at the tail of a funeral, for fear the weight should some day bring the massive masonry down. "Ha! ha! is that not good?" demanded the Paymaster, laughing till his jowl purpled over his stock. "I told him he would cross the bridge to Kilmalieu one day and instead of being last he would be first."
The Fiscal hirpled along in his tight knee-breeches looking down with vain satisfaction now and then at the ruffles of his shirt and the box-pleated frills that were dressed very snodly and cunningly by Bell Macniven, who had been in the Forty-second with her husband the sergeant, and had dressed the shirts of the Marquis of Huntly, who was Colonel.
"I have seldom, sir, seen a better dressed shirt," said Mr. William Spencer, of the New Inn, who was a citizen of London and anxious to make his way among the people here, "It is quite the style, quite the style, sir."
"Do you think so, now?" asked the Fiscal, pleased at the compliment.
"I do, indeed," said Mr. Spencer, "it is very genteel and just as the gentry like it."
The Fiscal coloured, turned and paused and fixed him with an angry eye.
"Do you speak to me of gentry, Mr. Spencer," he asked, "with any idea of making distinctions? You are a poor Sassenach person, I daresay, and do not know that my people have been in Blarinarn for three hundred years and I am the first man-of-business in the family."
The innkeeper begged pardon. Poor man! he had much to learn of Highland punctilio. He might be wanting in delicacy of this kind perhaps, but he had the heart, and it was he, as they came in front of the glee'd gun that stands on the castle lawn, who stopped to look back at a boy far behind them, alone on the top of the bridge.
"Is there no one with the boy?" he asked. "And where is he to stay now that his grandmother is dead?"
The Paymaster drew up as if he had been shot, and swore warmly to himself.
"Am not I the golan?" said he. "I forgot about the fellow, and I told the shepherd at Ladyfield to lock up the house till Whitsunday. I'm putting the poor boy out in the world without a roof for his head. It must be seen to, it must be seen to."
Rixa pompously blew out his cheeks and put back his shoulders in a way he had to convince himself he was not getting old and round-backed. "Oh," said he, "Jean Clerk's a relative; he'll be going to bide there."
They stood in a cluster in the middle of the road, the Paymaster with his black coat so tight upon his stomach it looked as if every brass button would burst with a crack like a gun; Rixa puffing and stretching himself; Major Dugald ducking his head and darting his glance about from side to side looking for the enemy; Mr. Spencer, tall, thin, with the new strapped breeches and a London hat, blowing his nose with much noise in a Barcelona silk handkerchief. All the way before them the crowd went straggling down in blacks with as much hurry as the look of the thing would permit, to reach the schoolhouse where the Paymaster had laid out the last service of meat and drink for the mourners. The tide was out; a sandy beach strewn with stones and clumps of seaweed gave its saline odour to the air; lank herons came sweeping down from the trees over Croitivile, and stalked about the water's edge. There was only one sound in nature beyond the soughing of the wind in the shrubbery of the Duke's garden, it was the plaintive call of a curlew as it flew over the stable park. A stopped and stagnant world, full of old men and old plaints, the dead of the yard behind, the solemn and sleepy town before.
The boy was the only person left in the rear of the Paymaster and his friends; he was standing on the bridge, fair in the middle of the way. Though the Paymaster cried he was not heard, so he walked back and up to the boy while the others went on their way to the schoolhouse, where old Brooks the dominie was waiting among the jars and oatcakes and funeral biscuits with currants and carvie in them.
Gilian was standing with the weepers off his cuffs and the crape off his bonnet; he had divested himself of the hateful things whenever he found himself alone, and he was listening with a rapt and inexpressive face to the pensive call of the curlew as it rose over the fields, and the tears were dropping down his cheeks.
"Oh, 'ille, what's the matter with you?" asked the Paymaster in Gaelic, struck that sorrow should so long remain with a child.
Gilian started guiltily, flushed to the nape of his neck and stammered an explanation or excuse.
"The bird, the bird!" said he, turning and looking at the dolorous piper of the marsh.
"Man!" said the Paymaster in English, looking whimsically at this childish expression of surprise. "Man! you're a queer callant too. Are there no curlews about Ladyfield that you should be in such a wonder at this one? Just a plain, long-nebbed, useless bird, not worth powder and shot, very douce in the plumage, and always at the same song like MacNicol the Major."
The little fellow broke into a stammering torrent of Gaelic. "What does it say, what does it say?" he asked: "it is calling, calling, calling, and no one will answer it; it is telling something, and I cannot understand. Oh, I am sorry for it, and——"
"You must be very hungry, poor boy," said the Paymaster. "Come away down, and Miss Mary will give you dinner. Did you ever taste rhubarb tart with cream to it? I have seen you making umbrellas with the rhubarb up the glen, but I'm sure the goodwife did not know the real use of it."
Gilian paid no heed to the speaker, but listened with streaming eyes to the wearied note of the bird that still cried over the field. Then the Paymaster swore a fiery oath most mildly, and clutched the boy by the jacket sleeve and led him homeward.
"Come along," said he, "come along. You're the daftest creature ever came out of the glen, and what's the wonder of it, born and bred among stirks and sheep on a lee-lone country-side with only the birds to speak to?"
The two went down the road together, the Paymaster a little wearied with his years and weight or lazied by his own drams, leaning in the least degree upon the shoulder of the boy. They made an odd-looking couple—dawn and the declining day, Spring and ripe Autumn, illusion and an elderly half-pay officer in a stock and a brown scratch wig upon a head that would harbour no more the dreams, the poignancies of youth. Some of the mourners hastening to their liquor turned at the Cross and looked up the road to see if they were following, and they were struck vaguely by the significance of the thing.
"Dear me," said the Fiscal, "is not Old Mars getting very bent and ancient?"
"He is, that!" said Rixa, who was Sheriff Maclachlan to his face. "I notice a glass or two makes a wonderful difference on him this year back ever since he had his little bit towt. That's a nice looking boy; I like the aspect of him; it's unusual. What a pity the Paymaster never had a wife or sons of his own."
"You say what is very true, Sheriff," said Mr. Spencer. "I think there is something very sad in the spectacle, sir, of an old gentleman with plenty of the world in his possession going down to the bourne with not a face beside him to mind of his youth."
But indeed the Paymaster was not even reminded of his own youth by this queer child on whom he leaned. He had never been like this, a shy frightened dreaming child taken up with fancies and finding omens and stories in the piping of a fowl. Oh! no, he had been a bluff, hearty, hungry boy, hot-headed, red-legged, short-kilted, stirring, a bit of a bully, a loud talker, a dour lad with his head and his fists. This boy beside him made him think of neither man nor boy, but of his sister Jennet, who died in the plague year, a wide-eyed, shrinking, clever girl, with a nerve that a harsh word set thrilling.
"Did Jean Clerk say anything about where you are to sleep to-night?" he asked him, still speaking the Gaelic in which he knew the little fellow was most at home.
"I suppose I'll just stay in my own bed in Lady-field," said Gilian, apparently little exercised by the thought of his future, and dividing some of his attention to the Paymaster with the sounds and sights of nature by the way, the thrust of the bracken crook between the crannies of the Duke's dykes, the gummy buds of the limes and chestnuts, the straw-gathering birds on the road, the heron so serenely stalking on the shore, and the running of the tiny streams upon the beach that smoked now in the heat of the sun.
The Paymaster seemed confounded. He swelled his neck more fully in the stock, cleared his throat with a loud noise, took a great pinch of snuff from his waistcoat pocket and spent a long time in disposing of it Gilian was in a dream far off from the elderly companion and the smoking shore; his spirit floated over the glen and sometimes farther still, among the hill gorges that were always so full of mystery to him, or farther still to the remote unknown places, foreign lands, cities, towns, where giants and fairies roamed and outrage happened and kings were, in the tales the shepherds told about the peat fires on ceilidh nights.
"I'm afraid you'll have to sleep in the town tonight," said the Paymaster, at last somewhat relieved of his confusion by the boy's indifference; "the truth is we are shutting up Ladyfield for a little. You could not stay alone in it at any rate, and did Jean Clerk not arrange that you were to stay with her after this?"
"No," said Gilian simply, even yet getting no grasp of his homelessness.
"And where are you going to stay?" asked the Paymaster testily.
"I don't know," said the boy.
The Paymaster spoke in strange words under his breath and put on a quicker pace and went through the town, even past the schoolhouse, where old Brooks stood at the door in his long surtout saying a Latin declension over to himself as if it were a song, and into the Crosshouses past the tanned women standing with their hands rolled up in their aprons, and up to Jean Clerk's door. He rapped loudly with his rattan. He rapped so loudly that the inmates knew this was no common messenger, and instead of crying out their invitation they came together and opened the door. The faces of the sisters grew rosy red at the sight of the man and the boy before him.
"Come away in, Captain," said Jean, assuming an air of briskness the confusion of her face belied. "Come away in, I am proud to see you at my door."
The Paymaster stepped in, still gripping the boy by the shoulder, but refused to sit down. He spoke very short and dry in his best travelled English.
"Did you lock up the Ladyfield house as I told you?" he asked.
"I did, that!" said Jean Clerk, lifting her brattie and preparing to weep, "and it'll be the last time I'll ever be inside its hospitable door."
"And you gave the key to Cameron the shepherd?"
"I did," said Jean, wondering what was to come next.
The Paymaster changed his look and his accent, and spoke again with something of a pawky humour that those who knew him best were well aware was a sign that his temper was at its worst.
"Ay," said he, "and you forgot about the boy. What's to be done with him? I suppose you would leave him to rout with the kye he was bred among, or haunt the rocks with the sheep. I was thinking myself coming down the road there, and this little fellow with me without a friend in the world, that the sky is a damp ceiling sometimes, and the grass of the field a poor meal for a boy's stomach. Eh! what say you, Mistress Clerk?" And the old soldier heaved a thumbful of snuff from his waistcoat pocket.
"The boy's no kith nor kin of mine," said Jean Clerk, "except a very far-out cousin's son." She turned her face away from both of them and pretended to be very busy folding up her plaid, which, as is well known, can only be done neatly with the aid of the teeth and thus demands some concealment of the face. The sister passed behind the Paymaster and the boy and startled the latter with a sly squeeze of the wrist as she did so.
"Do you tell me, my good woman," demanded the Paymaster, "that you would set him out on the road homeless on so poor an excuse as that? Far-out cousin here or far-out cousin there, he has no kin closer than yourself between the two stones of the parish. Where's your Hielan' heart, woman?"
"There's nothing wrong with my heart, Captain Campbell," said Jean tartly, "but my pocket's empty. If you think the boy's neglected you have a house of your own to take him into; it would be all the better for a young one in it, and you have the money to spend that Jean Clerk has not." All this with a very brave show of spirit, but with something uncommonly moist about the eyes.
The Paymaster, still clutching the boy at the shoulder, turned on his heel to go, but a side glance at Jean Clerk's face again showed him something different from avarice or anger.
"You auld besom you!" said he, dunting the floor with his rattan, "I see through you now; you think you'll get him put off on me. I suppose if I refused to take him in, you would be the first to make of him."
The woman laughed through her tears. "Oh, but you are the gleg-eyed one, Captain. You may be sure I would not see my cousin's grandchild starving, and I'll not deny I put him in your way, because I never knew a Campbell of Kiels, one of the old bold race, who had not a kind heart for the poor, and I thought you and your sister could do better than two old maiden women in a garret could do by him."
"You randy!" said he, "and that's the way you would portion your poor relations about the countryside. As if I had not plenty of poor friends of my own! And what in all the world am I to make of the youth?"
"You'll have nothing to do with the making of him, Captain Campbell," said Jean Clerk, now safe and certain that the boy's future was assured. "It'll be Miss Mary will have the making of him, and I ken the lady well enough—with my humble duty to her—to know she'll make him a gentleman at the very least."
"Tuts," said the Paymaster, "Sister Mary's like the rest of you; she would make a milksop of the boy if I was foolish enough to take him home to her. He'll want smeddum and manly discipline; that's the stuff to make the soldier. The uneasy bed to sleep on, the day's task to be done to the uttermost. I'll make him the smartest ensign ever put baldrick on—that's if I was taking him in hand," he added hastily, realising from the look of the woman that he was making a complete capitulation.
"And of course you'll take him, Captain Campbell," cried Jean Clerk in triumph. "I'm sure you would sooner take him and make a soldier of him than leave him with me—though before God he was welcome—to grow up harvester or herd."
The Paymaster took a ponderous snuff, snorted, and went off down the stair with the boy still by the hand, the boy wide-eyed wondering, unable to realise very clearly whether he was to be made a soldier or a herd there and then. And when the door closed behind them Jean Clerk and her sister sat down and wept and laughed in a curious mingling of sorrow and joy—sorrow that the child had to be turned from their door and out of their lives with even the pretence at inhospitality, and joy that their device had secured for him a home and future more comfortable than the best their straitened circumstances could afford.
CHAPTER IV—MISS MARY
The Paymaster and his two brothers lived with sister Mary on the upper flats of the biggest house of the burgh. The lower part was leased to an honest merchant whose regular payment of his rent did not prevent the Paymaster, every time he stepped through the close, from dunting with his cane on the stones with the insolence of a man whose birth and his father's acres gave him a place high above such as earned their living behind a counter.
"There you are, Sandy!" he would call, "doing no trade as usual; you'll not have sold a parcel of pins or a bolt of tape to-day, I suppose. Where am I to get my rent, I wonder, next Martinmas?"
The merchant would remonstrate. "I've done very well to-day, Captain," he would say. "I have six bolls of meal and seven yards of wincey going up the glen in the Salachary cart."
"Pooh, pooh, what's that to the time of war? I'll tell you this, Sandy, I'll have to roup out for my rent yet." And by he would sail, as red in the face as a bubbly-jock, swelling his neck over his stock more largely than ever, and swinging his rattan by its tassel or whacking with it on his calves, satisfied once more to have put this merchant-body in his own place.
To-day he paid no heed to the merchant, when, having just keeked in at the schoolroom to tell Dr. Colin and old Brooks he would be back in a minute to join the dregy, he went up the stairs with Gilian. "I'm going to leave you with my sister Mary," he explained. "You'll think her a droll woman, but all women have their tiravees, and my sister is a well-meaning creature."
Gilian thought no one could be more droll than this old man himself. Before indifferent to him, he had, in the past hour, grown to be afraid of him as a new mysterious agent who had his future in his hands. And to go up the stairs of this great high house, with its myriad windows looking out upon the busiest part of the street, and others gazing over the garden and the sea, was an experience new and bewildering. The dwelling abounded in lobbies and corridors, in queer corners where the gloom lurked, and in doors that gave glimpses of sombre bedsteads and high-backed austere chairs, of china painted with the most wonderful designs (loot of the old Indian palaces), of swords and sabretaches hung on walls, and tables polished to such degree that they reflected their surroundings.
They went into a parlour with its window open, upon the window-sill a pigeon mourning among pots of wallflowers and southernwood that filled the entering air with sweetness. A room with thin-legged chairs, with cupboards whose lozens gave view to punch-bowls and rummers and silver ladles, a room where the two brothers would convene at night while John was elsewhere, and in a wan candle light sit silent by the hour before cooling spirits, musing on other parlours elsewhere in which spurs had jingled under the board, musing on comrades departed. It was hung around with dark pictures in broad black frames, for the most part pictures of battles, "Fontenoy," "Stemming the Rout at Steinkirk," "Blenheim Field," and—a new one—"Vittoria." There were pictures of men too, all with soldier collars high upon the nape of the neck, and epaulettes on their shoulders, whiskered, keen-eyed young men—they were the brothers in their prime when girls used to look after them as they went by on their horses. And upon the mantlebrace, flanked by tall silver candlesticks, was an engraving of John, Duke of Argyll, Field-Marshal.
"Look at that man there," said the Paymaster, pointing to the noble and arrogant head between the candles, "that was a soldier's soldier. There is not his like in these days. If you should take arms for your king, boy, copy the precept and practice of Duke John. I myself modelled me on his example, and that, mind you, calls for dignity and valour and education and every manly part and——"
"Is that you blethering away in there, John?" cried a high female voice from the spence.
The Paymaster's voice surrendered half its confidence and pride, for he never liked to be found vaunting before his sister, who knew his qualities and had a sense of irony.
"Ay! it's just me, Mary," he cried back, hastening to the door. "I have brought a laddie up here to see you."
"It would be wiser like to bring me a man," cried the lady, coming into the room. "I'm wearied of washing sheets and blankets for a corps of wrunkled old brothers that have no gratitude for my sisterly slavery. Keep me! who's ballachan is that?"
She was a little thin woman, of middle age, with a lowland cap of lace that went a little oddly with the apron covering the front of the merino gown from top to toe. She had eyes like sloes, and teeth like pearls that gleamed when she smiled, and by constant trying to keep herself from smiling at things, she had worn two lines up and down between her eyebrows. A dear fond heart, a darling hypocrite, a foolish bounteous mother-soul without chick or child of her own, and yet with tenement for the loves of a large family. She fended, and mended, and tended for her soldier brothers, and they in the selfish blindness of their sex never realised her devotion. They sat, and over punch would talk of war, and valour, and devotion, and never thought that here, within their very doors, was a constant war in their behalf against circumstances, in their interest an unending valour that kept the little woman bustling on her feet, and shrewd-eyed over her stew-pans, while weariness and pain itself, and the hopeless unresponse and ingratitude of the surroundings, rendered her more appropriate place between the bed-sheets.
"What ballachan is this?" she asked, relaxing the affected acidity of her manner and smoothing out the lines upon her brow at the sight of the little fellow in a rough kilt, standing in a shy unrest upon the spotless drugget of her parlour floor. She waited no answer, but went forward as she spoke, as one who would take all youth to her heart, put a hand on his head and stroked his fair hair. It was a touch wholly new to the boy; he had never felt before that tingling feeling that a woman's hand, in love upon his head, sent through all his being. At the message of it, the caress of it, he shivered and looked up at her face in surprise.
"What do you think of him, Mary?" asked the brother. "Not a very stout chap, I think, but hale enough, and if you stuck his head in a pail of cream once a day you might put meat on him. He's the oe from Ladyfield; surely you might know him even with his boots on."
"Dear, dear," she said; "you're the Gilian I never saw but at a distance, the boy who always ran to the hill when I went to Ladyfield. O little hero, am I not sorry for the goodwife? You have come for your pick of the dinner——"
"Do you think we could make a soldier of him?" broke in the Paymaster, carrying his rattan like a sword and throwing back his shoulders.
"A soldier!" she said, casting a shrewd glance at the boy in a red confusion. "We might make a decenter man of him. Weary be on the soldiering! I'm looking about the country-side and I see but a horde of lameter privatemen and half-pay officers maimed in limb or mind sitting about the dram bottle, hoved up with their vain-glory, blustering and blowing, instead of being honest, eident lairds and farmers. I never saw good in a soldier yet, except when he was away fighting and his name was in the Courier as dead or wounded. Soldiers, indeed! sitting round there in the Sergeant More's tavern, drinking, and roaring, and gossiping like women—that I should miscall my sex! No, no, if I had a son——
"Well, well, Mary," said the Paymaster, breaking in again upon this tirade, "here's one to you. If you'll make the man of him I'll try to make him the soldier."
She understood in a flash! "And is he coming here?" she asked in an accent the most pleased and motherly. A flush came over her cheeks and her eyes grew and danced. It was as if some rare new thought had come to her, a sentiment of poetry, the sound of a forgotten strain of once familiar song.
"I'm sure I am very glad," she said simply. She took the boy by the hand, she led him into the kitchen, she cried "Peggy, Peggy," and when her servant appeared she said, "Here's our new young gentleman, Peggy," and stroked his hair again, and Peggy smiled widely and looked about for something to give him, and put a bowl of milk to his lips.
"Tuts!" cried Miss Mary, "it's not a calf we have; we will not spoil his dinner. But you may skim it and give him a cup of cream."
The Paymaster, left in the parlour among the prints of war and warriors, stood a moment with his head bent and his fingers among the snuff listening to the talk of the kitchen that came along the spence and through the open doors.
"She's a queer body, Mary," said he to himself, "but she's taking to the brat I think—oh yes, she's taking to him." And then he hurried down the stair and up round the church corner to the schoolhouse where the company, wearied waiting on his presence, were already partaking of his viands. It was a company to whom the goodwife of Ladyfield, the quiet douce widow, had been more or less a stranger, and its solemnity on this occasion of her burial was not too much insisted on. They were there not so much mourners as the guests of Captain Campbell, nigh on a dozen of half-pay officers who had escaped the shambles of Europe, with the merchants of the place, and some of the farmers of the glen, the banker, the Sheriff, the Fiscal and the writers of whom the town has ever had more than a fair share. Dr. Colin had blessed the viands and gone away; he was a new kind of minister and a surprising one, who had odd views about the drinking customs of the people, and when his coat skirts had disappeared round the corner of the church there was a feeling of relief, and old Baldy Bain, "Copenhagen" as they called him, who was precentor in the Gaelic end of the church, was emboldened to fill his glass up to more generous height than he had ever cared to do in the presence of the clergyman. The food and drink were spread on two long tables; the men stood round or sat upon the forms their children occupied in school hours. The room was clamant with the voices of the company. Gathered in groups, they discussed everything under heaven except the object of their meeting—the French, the sowing, the condition of the hogs, the Duke's approaching departure for London, the storm, the fishing. They wore their preposterous tall hats on the backs of their heads with the crape bows over the ears, they lifted up the skirts of their swallow-tail coats and hung them on their arms with their hands in their breeches pockets. And about them was the odour of musty, mildewed broadcloth, taken out of damp presses only on such occasions.
Mr. Spencer, standing very straight and tall and thin, so that his trousers at the foot strained tightly at the straps under his insteps, looked over the assembly, and with a stranger's eye could not but be struck by its oddity. He was seeing—lucky man to have the chance!—the last of the old Highland burgh life and the raw beginnings of the new; he was seeing the real doaine-uasail, gentry of ancient family, colloguing with the common merchants whose day was coming in; he was seeing the embers of the war in a grey ash, officers, merchants, bonnet lairds, and tenants now safe and snug and secure in their places because the old warriors had fought Boney. The schoolroom was perfumed with the smoke of peat, for it was the landward pupils' week of the fuelling, and they were accustomed to bring each his own peat under his arm every morning. The smoke swirled and eddied out into the room and hung about the ochred walls, and made more umber than it was before the map of Europe over the fireplace. Looking at this map and sipping now and then a glass of spirits in his hand, was a gentleman humming away to himself "Merrily danced the Quaker's wife." He wore a queue tied with a broad black ribbon that reached well down on his waist, and the rest of his attire was conform in its antiquity, but the man himself was little more than in his prime, straight set up like the soldier he was till he died of the Yellow in Sierra Leone, where the name of Turner, Governor, is still upon his peninsula.
"You are at your studies?" said Mr. Spencer to him, going up to his side with a little deference for the General, and a little familiarity for the son of a plain Portioner of Glen Shira who was to be seen any day coming down the glen in his cart, with a mangy sporran flapping rather emptily in front of his kilt.
Charlie Turner stopped his tune and turned upon the innkeeper.
"I scarcely need to study the map of Europe, Mr. Spencer," said he, "I know it by heart—all of it of any interest at least. I have but to shut my eyes and the panorama of it is before me. My brothers and I saw some of it, Mr. Spencer, from Torres Vedras to the Pyrenees, and I'm but looking at it now to amaze myself with seeing Albuera and Vittoria, Salamanca and Talavera and Quatre Bras, put on this map merely as black dots no more ken-speckle than the township of Camus up the glen. Wars, wars, bloody wars! have we indeed got to the last of them?"
"Indeed I hope so, sir," said the innkeeper, "for my wife has become very costly and very gaudy in her Waterloo blue silks since the rejoicings, and if every war set a woman's mind running to extravagance in clothing, the fewer we have the better."
"If I had a wife, Mr. Spencer (and alas! it's my fate to have lost mine), I should make her sit down in weeds or scarlet, after wars, the colour of the blood that ran. What do you say to that, General?"
He turned, as he spoke, to Dugald Campbell, who came to dregies * because it was the fashion of the country, but never ate nor drank at them.
* Dregy: The Scots equivalent of the old English Dirge- ale, or funeral feast. From the first word of the antiphon in the office for the dead, "Dirige, Domine meus,"
"You were speaking, General Turner?" said Campbell.
Turner fingered the seal upon his fob, with its motto "Tu ne cede malis," and smiled blandly, as he always did when it was brought to his recollection that he had won more than soldiers' battles when the odds against him were three to one.
"I was just telling Mr. Spencer that Waterloo looks like being the last of the battles, General, and that one bit of Brooks' map here is just as well known to some of us as the paths and woods and waters of Glen Shira."
"I'm not very well acquaint with Glen Shira myself," was all the General said, looking at the map for a moment with eyes that plainly had no interest in the thing before them, and then he turned to a nudge of the Paymaster's arm.
Turner smiled again knowingly to Mr. Spencer. "I put my brogues in it that time," said he in a discreet tone. "I forgot that the old gentleman and his brothers were far better acquaint with Glen Shira in my wife's maiden days than I was myself. But that's an old story, Mr. Spencer, that you are too recent an incomer to know the shades and meanings of."
"I daresay, sir, I daresay," said Mr. Spencer gravely. "You are a most interesting and sensitive people, and I find myself often making the most unhappy blunders."
"Interesting is not the word, I think, Mr. Spencer," said General Turner coldly; "we refuse to be interesting to any simple Sassenach." Then he saw the confusion in the innkeeper's face and laughed. "Upon my word," he said, "here I'm as touchy as a bard upon a mere phrase. This is very good drink, Mr. Spencer; your purveyance, I suppose?"
"I had the privilege, sir," said the innkeeper. "Captain Campbell gave the order——"
"Captain Campbell!" said the General, putting down his glass and drinking no more. "I was not aware that he was at the costs of this dregy. Still, no matter, you'll find the Campbells a good family to have dealings with of any commercial kind, pernick-etty and proud a bit, like all the rest of us, with their bark worse than their bite."
"I find them quite the gentlemen," said the innkeeper.
Turner laughed again.
"Man!" said he, "take care you do not put your compliment just exactly that way to them; you might as well tell Dr. Colin he was a surprisingly good Christian."
Old Brooks, out of sheer custom, sat on the high stool at his desk and hummed his declensions to himself, or the sing-song Arma virumque cano that was almost all his Latin pupils remembered of his classics when they had left school. The noise of the assembly a little distressed him; at times he would fancy it was his scholars who were clamouring before him, and he checked on his lips a high peremptory challenge for silence, flushing to think how nearly he had made himself ridiculous. From his stool he could see over the frosted glass of the lower window sash into the playground where it lay bathed in a yellow light, and bare-legged children played at shinty, with loud shouts and violent rushes after a little wooden ball. The town's cows were wandering in for the night from the common muir, with their milkmaids behind them in vast wide petticoats of two breadths, and their blue or lilac short-gowns tucked well up at their arms. Behind, the windows revealed the avenue, the road overhung with the fresh leaves of the beeches, the sunlight filtering through in lighter splashes on the shade. Within, the drink was running to its dregs, and piles of oatcake farls lay yet untouched. One by one the company departed. The glen folks solemnly shook hands with the Paymaster, as donor of the feast, and subdued their faces to a sad regret for this "melancholy occasion, Captain Campbell"; then went over to the taverns in the tenements and kept up their drinking and their singing till late in the evening; the merchants and writers had gone earlier, and now but the officers and Brooks were left, and Mr. Spencer, superintending the removal of his vessels and fragments to the inn. The afternoon was sinking into the calm it ever has in this place, drowsing, mellowing; an air of trance lay all about, and even the pensioners, gathered at the head of the schoolroom near the door, seemed silent as his scholars to the ear of Brooks. He lifted the flap of his desk and kept it up with his head while he surveyed the interior. Grammars and copy-books, pens in long tin boxes, the terrible black tawse he never used but reluctantly, and the confiscated playthings of the children who had been guilty of encroaching upon the hours of study with the trifles of leisure, were heaped within. They were for the most part the common toys of the country-side, and among them was a whistle made of young ash, after the fashion practised by children, who tap upon the bark to release it from its wood, slip off the bark entire upon its sap, and cut the vent or blow-hole. Old Brooks took it in his hand and a smile went over his visage.
"General Turner," he cried up the room, "here's an oddity I would like to show you," and he balanced the pipe upon his long fingers, and the smile played about his lips as he looked at it.
Turner came up, and "A whistle," said he. "What's the story?"
"Do you know who owns it?" asked Brooks.
"Sandy, I suppose," said the General, who knew the ingenuities of his only son. "At least, I taught him myself to make an ash whistle, and this may very well be the rogue's contrivance." He took the pipe in hand and turned it over and shrilled it at his lip. "Man," said he, "that makes me young again! I wish I was still at the age when that would pipe me to romance."
The schoolmaster smiled still. "It is not Master Sandy's," said he. "Did you never teach the facture of it to your daughter Nan? She made it yesterday before my very eyes that she thought were not on her at the time, and she had it done in time to pipe Amen to my morning prayer."
"Ah! the witch!" cried the General, his face showing affection and annoyance. "That's the most hoyden jade I'm sure you ever gave the ferule to."
"I never did that," said the schoolmaster.
"Well, at least she's the worst that ever deserved it. The wind is not more variable, nor the sea less careless of constraint She takes it off her mother, no doubt, who was the dearest madcap, the most darling wretch ever kept a sergeant's section of lovers at her skirts. I wish you could do something with her, Mr. Brooks. I do not ask high schooling, though there you have every qualification. I only ask some sobriety put in her so that she may not always be the filly on the meadow."
Old Brooks sighed. He took the whistle from the General and thought a moment, and put it to his lips and piped upon it once or twice as the moor-fowl pipes in spring. "Do you hear that?" he asked. "It is all, my General, we get from life and knowledge—a very thin and apparently meaningless and altogether monotonous squeak upon a sappy stem. Some of us make it out and some of us do not, because, as it happens, we are not so happily constituted. You would have your daughter a patient Martha of the household, and she will be playing in spite of you upon a wooden whistle of her own contrivance. What you want of me, I think, General, is that I should make her like her neighbours to pleasure you and earn my fees and Queen Anne's Bounty. I might try, yet I am not sure but what your girl will become by her sunny nature what I could not make her by my craft as a teacher. And this, sir, I would tell you: there is one mischief I am loth to punish in my school, and that's the music that may be inopportune, even when it takes the poor form of a shrill with an ashen stick made by the performer during the morning's sacred exercise."
The whistle had brought two or three of the company back to see what old Brooks was doing, and among them was the Paymaster. He was redder in the face than ever, and his wig was almost off his head, it was so slewed aside.
"Giving the General a lesson?" he asked with some show at geniality. He leaned a hand upon a desk, and remembered that just on that corner he leaned on he had placed many a shilling as Candlemas and Han'sel Monday offerings when he was a schoolboy, before the farming, before the army and India, and those long years at home on the upper flat of the house up the street where Miss Mary sat the lee-lone homester among her wanderers returned.
"I was but showing him the handiwork of his daughter Miss Nan," said Old Brooks pleasantly. "A somewhat healthy and boisterous lady, I assure you."
"Oh! I have heard of her," said the Paymaster, taking a pinch of maccabaw from his pocket, and leisurely lifting it to his nostril with the indifference of one with little interest in the subject. There was insult in the contempt of the action. The General saw it and flamed very hotly.
"And you have heard of a very handsome little lady," said he, "remarkably like her handsome mother, and a very good large-hearted daughter."
The Paymaster had an unpleasant little laugh that when he chose he could use with the sting of a whip though accompanied by never a word. He flicked the surplus of his snuff from his stock and gave this annoying little laugh, but he did not allow it to go unaccompanied, for he had overheard the General's speech to Mr. Spencer.
"No doubt she's all you say or think," said he dryly, "I'm sure I'm no judge, but there's a rumour abroad that she's a big handful. A want of discipline perhaps, no more than that—"
"You know the old saying, Captain," said the General, "bachelors' bairns are aye well trained."
The Paymaster started in a temper, and "I have a son," said he, "and——"
The General smiled with meaning.
"——A son; at least I'll make him that, and I'll show you something of training!"
Turner smiled anew, with a mock little bow and a wave of the fingers, a trick picked up abroad and maddening in its influence on a man with the feeling that it meant he was too small to have words with.
"I'll train him—I'll train him to hate your very name," said the Paymaster with an oath.
"I'm obliged for your cake and wine," said the General, still smiling, "and I wish you all good day." He lifted his hat and bowed and left the room.
"This is a most unfortunate contretemps," said Brooks, all trembling. "If I had thought a little whistle, a mere tibia of ash, had power to precipitate this unlucky and unseemly belligerence I would never have opened my desk."
The great bell upon the roof of the church swung upon its arms like an acrobat in petticoats, and loudly pealed the hour of seven. Its hammer boomed against the brassy gown, the town rang from end to end with the clamour of the curfew, and its tale of another day gone rumoured up the glens. Near at hand the air of the playground and of the street was tossed by the sound into tumultuous waves, so that even in the schoolroom the ear throbbed to the loud proclamation. Into the avenue streamed the schools of crows from their wanderings on the braes of Shira, and the children ceased their shinty play and looked up at the flying companies, and called a noisy song—
"Crow, crow, fly away home, Your fires are out and your children gone."
"That's a most haughty up-setting crew, and the queue-haired rover the worst of the lot!" said the Paymaster, still red and angry. "What I say's true, Brooks; it's true I tell you! You'll not for your life put it out of the boy's head when you have the teaching of him; he must hate the Turners like poison. Mind that now, mind that now!"
And turning quickly on his heels, the Paymaster went out of the schoolroom.
CHAPTER V—THE BROTHERS
Gilian, meanwhile, sat on a high chair in Miss Mary's room. She gave him soup till her ladle scraped against the bottom of the tureen; she cut for him the tenderest portions of the hen; she gave him most generously of cheese—not the plain skim-milk curd cheese of Ladyfield, the leavings of the dairy, but the Saturday kebboch as it was called, made of the overnight and morning's milk, poured cream and all into the yearning-tub. And as she served him, her tongue went constantly upon themes of many varieties, but the background of them all, the conclusion of them all, was the greatness of her brothers. Ah! she was a strange little woman with the foolish Gaelic notion that an affection bluntly displayed to its object is an affection discreditable.
"You will go far," said she to Gilian, "before you will come on finer men. They are getting old and done, but once I knew them tall and strong and strapping, not their equals in all the armies. And what they have seen of wars, my dear! They were ever going or coming from them, and sometimes I would not know where they were out in the quarrelsome world but for a line in the Saturday Post or the Courier or maybe an old hint in the General Almanack itself. Perhaps when you become acquainted with the General and the Cornal you will wonder that they are never at any time jocular, and maybe you will think that they are soured at life and that all their kindness is turned to lappered cream. I knew them nearly jocular, I knew them tall, light-footed laddies, running about the pastures there gallivanting with the girls. But that, my dear, was long ago, and I feel myself the old woman indeed when I see them so stiff and solemn sitting in there over their evening glass."
"I have never seen them; were they at the funeral?" asked Gilian, his interest roused in such survivals of the past.
"That they were," said Miss Mary; "a funeral now is their only recreation. But perhaps you would not know them because they are not at all like the Captain. He was a soldier too, in a way, but they were the ancient warriors. Come into the room here and I will show you, if you have finished your dinner."
Gilian went with her into the parlour again among the prints and the hanging swords, that now he knew the trade and story of the men who sat among them, were imbued with new interests.
Miss Mary pointed to the portraits. "That was Colin and Dugald before they went away the second time," she said. "We had one of James too—-he died at Corunna—but it was the only one, and we gave it to a lady of the place who was chief with him before he went away, and dwined a great deal after his death. And that's his sword. When it came home from Spain by MacFarlane, the carrier round from Dumbarton, I took it out and it was clagged in the scabbard with a red glut. It was a sore memorial to an only sister."
The boy stood in the middle of the floor feeling himself very much older than he had done in the morning. The woman's confidences made him almost a man, for before he had been spoken to but as a child, though his thoughts were far older than his years. Those relics of war, especially the sheath that had the glut of life in it corrupting when it came back with the dead man's chest, touched him inwardly to a brief delirium. The room all at once seemed to fill with the tramping of men and the shrilling of pipers, with ships, quays, tumultuous towns, camps, and all the wonders or the shepherds' battle stories round the fire, and he was in a field, and it was the afternoon with a blood-red sky beyond the fir-trees, dense smoke floating across it and the cries of men cutting each other down. He saw—so it seemed as he stood in the middle of the floor of the little parlour with the crumbs of his dinner still upon his vest—the stiff figure of a fallen man in a high collar like the man portrayed upon the wall, and his hand was still in the hilt of a reddened sword and about him were the people he had slain. That did not much move the boy, but he was stirred profoundly when he saw the sword come home. He saw Miss Mary open out the chest in the kitchen and pull hard upon the hilt of the weapon, and he saw her face when the terrible life-glut revealed itself like a rust upon the blade. His nostrils expanded, his eyes glistened; Miss Mary hurriedly looked at him with curiosity, for his breath suddenly quickened and strained till it was the loudest sound in the room.
"What is it, dear?" she said kindly, putting a hand upon his shoulder, speaking the Gaelic that any moment of special fondness brought always to her lips.
"I do not know," said he, ashamed. "I was just thinking of your brother who did not come home, and of your taking out his sword."
She looked more closely at him, at the flush that crept below the fair skin of his neck and more than common paleness of his cheek. "I think," said she, "I am going to like you very much. I might be telling my poor story of a sword to Captain John there a hundred times, and he could not once get at the innermost meaning of it for a woman's heart."
"I saw the battle," said he, encouraged by a sympathy he had never known before.
"I know you did," said she.
"And I saw him dead."
"And I saw you dropping the sword when you tugged it from the scabbard, and you cried out and ran and washed your hands, though they were quite clean."
"Indeed I did I," said Miss Mary, all trembling as the past was so plainly set before her. "You are uncanny—no, no, you are not uncanny, you are only ready-witted, and you know how a sister would feel when her dead brother's sword was brought back to her, and the blood of the brothers of other sisters was on its blade. That's my only grievance with those soldier brothers of mine. I said I did not think much of the soldiers; oh! boy, I love them all. I sometimes grieve that God made me a woman that I might not be putting on the red coat too, and following the drum. And still and on, I would have no son of mine a soldier. Three fozy, foggy brothers—what did the armies do for them? They never sharpened their wits, but they sit and dover and dream, dream, even-on, never knowing all that's in their sister Mary's mind. And here you are, a boy, yet you get to my thoughts in a flash. Oh! I think I am going to be very fond of you."
Gilian was amazed that at last some one understood him. No one ever did at Ladyfield; his dreams, his fancies, his spectacles of the inner eye were things that he had grown ashamed of. But here was a shrewd little lady who seemed to think his fancy and confidence nothing discreditable. He was encouraged greatly to let her into his vagrant mind, so sometimes in passionate outbursts, when the words ran over the heels of each other, sometimes in shrinking, stammering, reluctant sentences he told her how the seasons affected him, and the morning and the night, the smells of things, the sounds of woods and the splash of waters, and the mists streaming along the ravines. He told her—or rather he made her understand, for his language was simple—how at sudden outer influences his whole being fired, and from so trivial a thing as a cast-off horseshoe on the highway he was compelled to picture the rider, and set him upon the saddle and go riding with him to the King of Erin's court that is in the story of the third son of Easadh Ruadh in the winter tale. How the joy of the swallow was his in its first darting flights among the eaves of the old barn, and how when it sped at the summer's end he went with it across shires and towns, along the surface of winding rivers, even over the seas to the land of everlasting sun. How the sound of the wave on the rock moved him and set him with the ships and galleys, the great venturers whipping and creaking and tossing in the night-time under the stars. How the dark appalled or soothed as the humour was, and the right of a first flower upon a tree would sometimes make him weep at the notion of the brevity of its period.
All the time Miss Mary listened patient and understanding. The high-backed chair compassed her figure so fully that she seemed to shrink to a child's size. It was a twelve-window house, and so among the highest taxed in all the town, but in the parlour there were two blind windows and only one gave light to the interior, so that as she sat in her chair with her back to the window, her face in the shadow, leaning against the chair haffits with the aspect of weariness her brothers never had revealed to them, it seemed to Gilian the little figure and the ruddy face of a companion. She was silent for a moment after his confessions were completed, as if she had been wandering with him in the realm of fancy, and with wings less practised had taken longer to fly back to the narrow actual world. The boy had realised how much he had forgotten himself, and how strange all this story of his must be even to a child-companion with her face in the shadow of the chair haffits, and his eyes were faltering with shame.
"You are very thin, sweetheart," said she, with the two lines darkly pencilled between her eyebrows. "You are far too white for a country boy; upon my word we must be taking the Captain's word for it and putting your head in the cream."
At this Gilian's confusion increased. Here was another to misunderstand, and he had thought she was shivering to his fancy as he was himself. He turned to hide his disappointment. At once the lines disappeared. She rose and put an arm over his shoulder and stooped the little that was necessary to whisper in his ear.
"I know, I think I know," said she; "but look, I'm very old and ancient. Oh, dear! I once had my own fancies, but I think they must have been sweat out of me in my constancy to my brothers' oven-grate and roasting-jack. It must be the old, darling, foolish Highlands in us, my dear, the old people and the old stupid stories they are telling for generations round the fire, and it must be the hills about us, and the constant complaint of the sea—tuts! am not I foolish to be weeping because a boy from Glen Aray has not learned to keep his lips closed on his innermost thought?"
Gilian looked up, and behold! she was in a little rain of tears, at least her eyes swam soft in moisture. It comforted him exceedingly, for it showed that after all she understood.
"If you were a little older," she said, "so old as the merchants of the town that are all too much on the hunt for the bawbees and the world to sit down and commune with themselves, or if you were so old as my brothers there and so hardened, I would be the last to say my thoughts ever stirred an ell-length out of the customary track of breakfast, beds, dinner and supper. Do not think I do not love and reverence my brothers, mind you!" she added almost fiercely, rubbing with her lustre apron the table there was nothing to rub from save its polish. "Oh! they are big men and far-travelled men, and they have seen the wonderful sights. They used to get great thick letters franked from the Government with every post, and the Duke will be calling on them now and then in his chariot. They speak to me of nothing but the poorest, simplest, meanest transactions of the day because they think I cannot comprehend nor feel. Gilian, do you know I am afraid of them? Not of John the Captain, for he is different, with a tongue that goes, but I'm frightened when the General and the Cornal sit and look at me saying nothing because I am a woman."
"I do not like people to sit looking at me saying nothing," said Gilian, "because when I sit and look at people without saying anything I am reading them far in. But mostly I would sooner be making up things in my mind."
"Ah!" said she, "that is because your mind is young and spacious; theirs, poor dears, are full of things that have actually happened, and they need not fancy the orra any more."
They moved together out of the parlour and along the lobby that lighted it. With a low sill it looked upon the street that now was thronged with the funeral people passing home or among the shops, or from tavern to tavern. The funeral had given the town a holiday air, and baxters and dealers stood at their doors gossiping with their customers or by-goers. Country carts rumbled past, the horses moving slowly, reluctant to go back from this place of oats and stall to the furrows where the collar pressed constantly upon the shoulder. One or two gentlemen went by on horses—Achnatra and Major Hall and the through-other son of Lorn Campbell. The sun, westering, turned the clean rain-washed sand in the gutters of the street to gold, and there the children played and their calls and rhymes and laughter made so merry a world that the boy at the window, looking out upon it, felt a glow. He was now to be always with these fortunate children whom he knew so well ere ever he had changed words with them. He had a little dread of the magnitude and corners of this dwelling that was to be his in the future, and of the old men who sat in it all day saying nothing, but it was strange indeed (thought he) if with Miss Mary within, and the sunshine and the throng and the children playing in the syver sand without, he should not find life more full and pleasant than it had been in the glen. All these thoughts made warp for the woof of his attention to the street as he stood at the window. And by-and-by there came a regret for the things lost with the death of the little old woman of Ladyfield—what they were his mind did not pause to make definite, but there was the sense of chances gone with no recalling, of a calm, of a solitude, of a more intimate communion with the animals of the wilds and the voices of the woods and hills.
The woman as well as the boy must have been lost in thought, for neither of them noted the step upon the stair when the General and Cornal came back from the dregy. The brothers were in the lobby beside them before Miss Mary realised their presence. She turned with a flushed face and, as it were, put herself a little in front of the boy, so that half his figure found the shelter of a wing. The two brothers between them filled the width of the lobby, and yet they were not wide. But they were broad at the shoulders and once, no doubt, they filled their funeral suits that of their own stiffness seemed to stand out in all their old amplitude. The General was a white-faced rash of a man with bushy eyebrows, a clean-shaven parchment jowl, and a tremulous hand upon the knob of his malacca rattan; his brother the Cornal was less tall; he was of a purpled visage, and a crimson scar, the record of a wound from Corunna, slanted from his chin to the corner of his left eye.