THE DEW OF THEIR YOUTH
By S. R. CROCKETT
Author Of 'The Lilac Sunbonnet,' 'The Black Douglas,' 'Strong Mac,' 'Rose Of The Wilderness,' etc.
HODDER AND STOUGHTON LONDON—MCMX
Richard Clay & Sons, Limited, Bread Street Hill, E.C., and Bungay, Suffolk.
CHAPTER I PAGE The Haunted House of Marnhoul 1
CHAPTER II 'In the Name of the Law!' 10
CHAPTER III Miss Irma gives an Audience 18
CHAPTER IV First Foot in the Haunted House 22
CHAPTER V The Censor of Morals 33
CHAPTER VI The Apotheosis of Agnes Anne 42
CHAPTER VII The Doctor's Advent 51
CHAPTER VIII Kate of the Shore 62
CHAPTER IX The Eve of St. John 73
CHAPTER X The Crowbar in the Wood 82
CHAPTER XI Agnes Anne's Experiences as a Spy 87
CHAPTER XII The Fight in the Dark 96
CHAPTER XIII A World of Ink and Fire 101
CHAPTER XIV The White Free Traders 109
CHAPTER XV My Grandmother speaks her Mind 118
CHAPTER XVI Castle Connoway 127
CHAPTER XVII The Man 'Doon-the-hoose' 133
CHAPTER XVIII The Transfiguration of Aunt Jen 138
CHAPTER XIX Loaded-pistol Pollixfen 146
CHAPTER XX The Real Mr. Poole 155
CHAPTER XXI While we sat by the Fire 162
CHAPTER XXII Boyd Connoway's Evidence 170
CHAPTER XXIII The Sharp Spur 184
CHAPTER XXIV The College of King James 193
CHAPTER XXV Satan Finds 201
CHAPTER XXVI Perfidy, thy Name is Woman! 209
CHAPTER XXVII Then, Heigh-ho, the Molly!' 218
CHAPTER XXVIII Love and the Logician 227
CHAPTER XXIX The Avalanche. 233
CHAPTER XXX The Vanishing Lady 244
CHAPTER XXXI wice Married 254
CHAPTER XXXII The Little House on the Meadows 262
CHAPTER XXXIII And the Door was Shut 268
CHAPTER XXXIV A Visit from Boyd Connoway 274
CHAPTER XXXV The Valley of the Shadow 280
CHAPTER XXXVI The Supplanter 288
CHAPTER XXXVII The Return of the Serpent to Eden Valley 297
CHAPTER XXXVIII By Water and the Word 305
CHAPTER XXXIX The Wicked Flag 313
CHAPTER XL The Great 'Tabernacle' Revival 322
CHAPTER XLI In the Wood Parlour 330
CHAPTER XLII The Place of Dreams 338
THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF MARNHOUL
I, Duncan MacAlpine, school-master's son and uncovenanted assistant to my father, stood watching the dust which the Highflyer coach had left between me and Sandy Webb, the little guard thereof, as he whirled onward into the eye of the west. It was the hour before afternoon school, and already I could hear my father's voice within declaiming as to unnecessary datives and the lack of all feeling for style in the Latin prose of the seniors.
A score of the fifth class, next in age and rank, were playing at rounders in an angle of the court, and I was supposed to be watching them. In reality I was more interested in a group of tall girls who were patrolling up and down under the shade of the trees at the head of their playground—where no boy but I dare enter, and even I only officially. For in kindly Scots fashion, the Eden Valley Academy was not only open to all comers of both sexes and ages, but was set in the midst of a wood of tall pines, in which we seniors were permitted to walk at our guise and pleasure during the "intervals."
Here the ground was thick and elastic with dry pine needles, two or three feet of them firmly compacted, and smelling delightfully of resin after a shower. Indeed, at that moment I was interested enough to let the boys run a little wild at their game, because, you see, I had found out within the last six months that girls were not made only to be called names and to put out one's tongue at.
There was, in especial, one—a dark, slim girl, very lissom of body and the best runner in the school. She wore a grey-green dress of rough stuff hardly ankle-long, and once when the bell-rope broke and I had sprained my ankle she mounted instead of me, running along the rigging of the roofs to ring the bell as active as a lamplighter. I liked her for this, also because she was pretty, or at least the short grey-green dress made her look it. Her name was Gertrude Gower, but Gerty Greensleeves was what she was most frequently called, except, of course, when I called the roll before morning and afternoon.
I had had a talk with Sandy Webb, the guard, as he paused to take in the mails. My father was also village postmaster, but, though there was a girl in the office to sell stamps and revenue licences, and my mother behind to say "that she did not know" in reply to any question whatsoever, I was much more postmaster than my father, though I suppose he really had the responsibility.
Sandy Webb always brought a deal of news to Eden Valley. And as I had official and private dealings with him—the public relating to way-bills and bag-receipts, and the private to a noggin of homebrewed out of the barrel in the corner of our cellar—he always gave me the earliest news, before he hurried away—as it were, the firstlings of the flock.
"There's a stir at Cairn Edward," he said casually, as he set down his wooden cup. "John Aitken, the mason, has fallen off a scaffolding and broken——"
"Not his leg?" I interrupted anxiously, for John was a third cousin of my mother's.
"No, more miraculous than that!" the guard averred serenely.
"His back?" I gasped—for John Aitken, as well as a relation, was a fellow-elder of my father's, and the two often met upon sacramental occasions.
"No," said Sandy, enjoying his grave little surprise, "only the trams of his mortar-barrow! And there's that noisy tinkler body, Tim Cleary, the Shire Irishman, in the lock-up for wanting to fight the Provost of Dumfries, and he'll get eight days for certain. But the Provost is paying the lodgings of his wife and family in the meantime. It will be a rest for them, poor things."
It was at this moment that Sandy Webb, square, squat, many-wrinkled man, sounded his horn and swung himself into his place as the driver, Andrew Haugh, gathered up his reins. But I knew his way, and waited expectantly. He always kept the pick of his news to the end, then let it off like a fire-cracker, and departed in a halo of dusty glory.
"Your private ghost is making himself comfortable over yonder at the Haunted House. I saw the reek of his four-hours fire coming up blue out of the chimbly-top as we drove past!"
It was thus that the most notable news of a decade came to Eden Valley. The Haunted House—we did not need to be told—was Marnhoul, a big, gaunt mansion, long deserted, sunk in woods, yet near enough to the Cairn Edward road to be visible in stray round towers and rows of chimneys, long unblacked by fire of kitchen or parlour. It had a great forest behind it, on the verges of which a camp of woodcutters and a rude saw-mill had long been established, eating deeper and deeper in, without, however, seeming to make any more difference than a solitary mouse might to a granary.
We boys knew all about the Haunted House. Since our earliest years it had been the very touchstone of courage to go to the gate on a moonlight night, hold the bars and cry three times, "I'm no feared!" Some had done this, I myself among the number. But—though, of course, being a school-master's son, I did not believe in ghosts—I admit that the return journey was the more pleasant of the two, especially after I got within cry of the dwellings of comfortable burgesses, and felt the windows all alight on either side of me, so near that I could almost touch them with my hand.
Not that I saw anything! I knew from the first it was all nonsense. My father had told me so a score of times. But having been reared in the superstitious Galloway of the ancient days—well, there are certain chills and creeps for which a man is not responsible, inexplicable twitchings of the hairy scalp of his head, maybe even to the breaking of a cold sweat over his body, which do not depend upon belief. I kept saying to myself, "There is nothing! I do not believe a word of it! 'Tis naught but old wives' fables!" But, all the same, I took with a great deal of thankfulness the dressing-down I had got from my father for being late for home lessons on a trigonometry night. You see, I was born and reared in Galloway, and I suppose it was just what they have come to call in these latter days "the influence of environment."
Well, at that moment, who should come up but Jo Kettle, a good fellow and friend of mine, but of no account in the school, being a rich farmer's son, who was excused from taking Latin because he was going to succeed his father in the farm. Jo had a right to the half of my secrets, because we both liked Gerty Greensleeves pretty well; and I was certain that she cared nothing about Jo, while Jo could swear that she counted me not worth a button.
So I told Jo Kettle about the Haunted House, and he was for starting off there and then. But it was perfectly evident that I could not with these fifth class boys to look after, and afternoon school just beginning. And if I could not, I was very sure that he had better not. More than once or twice I had proved that it was his duty to do as I said. Jo understood this, but grew so excited that he bolted into school in a moment with the noise of a runaway colt. His entrance disarranged the attention of the senior Latiners of the sixth. My father frowned, and said, "What do you mean, boy, by tumbling through the classroom door like a cart of bricks? Come quietly; and sit down, Agnes Anne!"
This was my poor unfortunate sister, aged fourteen, whom a pitiless parent compelled to do classics with the senior division.
Jo Kettle sat down and pawed about for his mensuration book, which he studied for some time upside down. Then he extracted his box of instruments from his bag and set himself to do over again a proposition with which he had been familiar for weeks. This, however, was according to immemorial school-boy habit, and sometimes succeeded with my father, who was dreamy wherever the classics were not concerned, and regarded a mere land-measuring agricultural scholar as outside the bounds of human interest, if not of Christian charity.
In two minutes my father was again immersed in Horace, which (with Tacitus) was his chief joy. Then Jo leaned nearer to Agnes Anne and whispered the dread news about the Haunted House. My sister paled, gasped, and clutched at the desk. Jo, fearful that she would begin, according to the sympathetic school phrase, "to cluck like a hen," threatened first to run the point of his compasses into her if she did not sit up instantly; and then, this treatment proving quite inadequate to the occasion, he made believe to pour ink upon her clean cotton print, fresh put on that morning. This brought Agnes Anne round, and, with a face still pale, she asked for details. Jo supplied them in a voice which the nearness of my father reduced to a whisper. He sat with his fingers and thumbs making an isosceles triangle and his eyes gently closed, while he listened to the construing of Fred Esquillant, the pale-faced genius of the school. At such times my father almost purred with delight, and Agnes Anne said that it was "just sweet to watch him." But even this pleasure palled before the tidings from the Haunted House as edited and expanded by Jo Kettle.
"Yes, Duncan had told him, and Sandy Webb had told him. There were daylight ghosts abroad about Marnhoul. Everybody on the coach had seen them——"
"What were they like?" queried Agnes Anne in an awestruck whisper; so well poised, however, that it only reached Jo's ear, and never caused my enraptured father to wink an eyelid. I really believe that, like a good Calvinist with a sound minister tried and proven, my father allowed himself a little nap by way of refreshment while Fred Esquillant was construing.
Nothing loath, Jo launched headlong into the grisly. Through the matted undergrowth of years, over the high-spiked barriers of the deer-park, the Highflyer had seen not only the familiar Grey Lady in robes of rustling silk (through which you could discern the gravel and weeds on the path), but little green demons with chalk-white heads and long ears. These leaped five-barred gates and pursued the coach and its shrieking inmates as far as the little Mains brook that passes the kirk door at the entrance of the village. Then there was a huge, undistinct, crawling horror, half sea-serpent, half slow-worm, that had looked at them over the hedge, and, flinging out a sudden loop, had lassoed Peter Chafts, the running footman, whose duty it was to leap down and clear stones out of the horses' hoofs. Whether Little Peter had been recovered or not, Jo Kettle very naturally could not tell. How, indeed, could he? But, with an apparition like that, it was not at all probable.
Jo was preparing a further instalment, including clanking chains, gongs that sounded unseen in the air, hands that gripped the passengers and tried to pull them from their seats—all the wild tales of Souter Gowans, the village cobbler, and of ne'er-do-well farm lads, idle and reckless, whose word would never have been taken in any ordinary affair of life. Jo had not time, however, for Agnes Anne had a strong imagination, coupled with a highly nervous organization. She laughed out suddenly, in the middle of a solemn Horatian hush, a wild, hysterical laugh, which brought my father to his feet, broad awake in a second. The class gazed open-mouthed, the pale face of Fred Esquillant alone twitching responsively.
"What have you been saying to Agnes Anne MacAlpine?" demanded my father, who would sooner have resigned than been obliged to own son or daughter as such in school-time.
"Nothing!" said Jo Kettle, speaking according to the honour that obliges schoolboys to untruth as a mode of professional honour. Then Jo, seeing the frown on the master's face, and forestalling the words that were ready to come from his lips, "But, sirrah, I saw you!" amended hastily, "At least, I was only asking Agnes Anne to sit a little farther along!"
"What!" cried my father, with the snap of the eye that meant punishment, "to sit farther along, when you had no interest in this classical lesson, sir—a lesson you are incapable of understanding, and—all the length of an empty bench at your left hand! You shall speak with me at the close of the lesson, and that, sirrah, is now! The class is dismissed! I shall have the pleasure of a little interview with Master Joseph Kettle, student of mensuration."
Jo had his interview, in which figured a certain leathern strap, called "Lochgelly" after its place of manufacture—a branch of native industry much cursed by Scottish school-children. "Lochgelly" was five-fingered, well pickled in brine, well rubbed with oil, well used on the boys, but, except by way of threat, unknown to the girls. Jo emerged tingling but triumphant. Indeed, several new ideas had occurred to him. Eden Valley Academy stood around and drank in the wondrous tale with all its ears and, almost literally, with one mouth. Jo Kettle told the story so well that I well-nigh believed it myself. He even turned to me for corroboration.
"Didn't he tell you that, Duncan? That was the way of it, eh, Duncan?"
I denied, indeed, and would have stated the truth as it was in Guard Webb. But my futile and feeble negations fell unheeded, swept away by the pour of Jo's circumstantial lying.
Finally he ran off into the village and was lost to sight. I have little doubt that he played truant, in full recognition of pains and penalties to come, for the mere pleasure of going from door to door and "raising the town," as he called it. I consoled myself by the thought that he would find few but womenfolk at home at that hour, while the shopkeepers would have too much consideration for their tills and customers to follow a notorious romancer like Jo on such a fool's errand.
I cannot tell how that afternoon's lessons were got over in Eden Valley Academy. The hum of disturbance reached even the juniors, skulking peacefully under little Mr. Stephen, the assistant. Only Miss Huntingdon, in the Infant Department, remained quiet and neat as a dove new-preened among her murmuring throng of unconscious little folk.
But in the senior school, though I never reported a boy to my father (preferring to postpone his case for private dealing in the playground), the lid of the desk was opened and snapped sharply every five minutes to give exit and entrance to "Lochgelly." Seldom have I seen my father so roused. He hated not to understand everything that was going on in the school. He longed to ask me what I knew about it, but, according to his habit, generously forbore, lest he should lead me to tell tales upon my fellows. For, though actually junior assistant to my father, I was still a scholar, which made my position difficult indeed. To me it seemed as if the clock on the wall above the fireplace would never strike the hour of four.
"IN THE NAME OF THE LAW!"
At last—at last! The door between the seniors and Mr. Stephen's juniors was thrown open. My father, making his usual formal bow to his assistant, said, "When you are ready, Mr. Stephen!" And Mr. Stephen was always ready. Then with his back to the hinges of the door, and his strong black beard with the greying strands in it set forward at an angle, Mr. John MacAlpine, head-master of Eden Valley Academy, said a few severe words on the afternoon's lack of discipline, and prophesied in highly coloured language the exemplary manner in which any repetition of it would be treated on the morrow. Then he doubled all home lessons, besides setting a special imposition to each class. Having made this clear, he hoped that the slight token of his displeasure might assure us of his intention to do his duty by us faithfully, and then, with the verse of a chanted psalm we were let go.
Class by class defiled with rumble of boots and tramp of wooden-soled clogs, the boys first, the girls waiting till the outside turmoil had abated—but, nevertheless, as anxious as any to be gone. I believe we expected to tumble over slow serpents and nimble spectres coming visiting up the school-loaning, or coiling in festoons among the tall Scotch firs at the back of the playground.
We of the sixth class were in the rear—I last of all, for I had to lock away the copybooks, turn the maps to the wall, and give my father the key. But I had warned the other seniors that they were not to start without me.
And then, what a race! A bare mile it was, through the thick fringes of woods most of the way—as soon, that is, as we were out of the village. Along the wall of the Deer Park we ran, where we kept instinctively to the far side of the road. We of the highest class were far in front—I mean those of us who kept the pace. The Fifth had had a minute or two start of us, so they were ahead at first, but we barged through their pack without mercy, scattering them in all directions.
There at last was the gate before us. We had reached it first. Five of us there were, Sam Gordon, Ivie Craig, Harry Stoddart, Andrew Clark and myself—yes, there was another—that forward Gerty Greensleeves, who had kilted her rough grey-green dress and run with the best, all to prove her boast that, but for the clothes she had to wear, she was as good a runner as the best boy there. Indeed, if the truth must be told, she could outrun all but me.
The tall spikes, the massive brass padlock, green with weathering, in which it was doubtful if any key would turn, the ancient "Notice to Trespassers," massacred by the stones of home-returning schoolboys—these were all that any of us could see at first. The barrier of the deer-park wall was high and unclimbable. The massy iron of the gates looked as if it had not been stirred for centuries.
But a tense interest held us all spellbound. We could see nothing but some stray glimpses of an ivy-clad wall. A weathercock, that had once been gilded, stood out black against the evening sky. The Grey Lady in the rustling silk, through whom you could see the rain drops splash on the gravel stones, was by no means on view. No green demons leaped these sullen ten-foot barricades, and no forwandered sea-serpent threw oozy wimples on the green-sward or hissed at us between the rusty bars.
It was, at first, decidedly disappointing. We ordered each other to stop breathing so loudly, after our burst of running. We listened, but there was not even the sough of wind through the trees—nothing but the beating of our own hearts.
What had we come out to see? Apparently nothing. The school considered itself decidedly "sold," and as usual prepared to take vengeance, first upon Jo Kettle and then, as that youth still persisted in a discreet absence of body, on myself.
"You spoke to Sandy Webb, the guard," said Gertrude-of-the-Sleeves, scowling upon me; "what did he say?"
Before I could answer Boyd Connoway, the village do-nothing, enterprising idler and general boys' abettor, beckoned us across the road. He was on the top of a little knoll, thick with the yellow of broom and the richer orange of gorse. Here he had stretched himself very greatly at his ease. For Boyd Connoway knew how to wait, and he was waiting now. Hurry was nowhere in Boyd's dictionary. Not that he had ever looked.
In a moment we were over the dyke, careless of the stones that we sent trickling down to afflict the toes of those who should come after us. We stood on the top of the mound. Connoway disturbed himself just enough to sit up for our sakes, which he would not have done for a dozen grown men. He removed the straw from his mouth, and pointed with it to the end chimney nearest to the great wood of Marnhoul.
We gazed earnestly, following the straw and gradually we could see, rising into the still air an unmistakable "pew" of palest blue smoke—which, as we looked, changed into a dense white pillar that rose steadily upwards, detaching itself admirably against the deep green black of the Scotch firs behind.
"There," said Connoway gravely, "yonder is your ghost mending his fire!"
We stood at gaze, uncomprehending, too astonished for speech. We had come, even the unbelievers of us, prepared for the supernatural, for something surpassingly eery, and anything so commonplace as the smoke of a fire was a surprise greater than the sight of all Jo Kettle's imaginations coming at us abreast.
Yet the people who owned the great house of Marnhoul were far away—few had ever seen any of them. Their affairs were in the hands of a notable firm of solicitors in Dumfries. How any mortal could have entered that great abode, or inhabited it after the manner of men, was beyond all things inexplicable. But there before us the blue reek continued to mount, straight as a pillar, till it reached the level of the trees on the bank behind, when a gentle current of air turned it sharply at right angles to the south.
Now we heard the tramp of many feet, and beneath us we saw Jo Kettle with half-a-dozen of his father's workers, and the village constable to make sure that all was done in due and proper order. To these was joined a crowd of curious townsmen, eager for any new thing. All were armed to the teeth with rusty cutlasses and old horse pistols, which, when loaded, made the expedition one of no inconsiderable peril.
The man with the crowbar applied it to the rusty chain of the padlock. Two others assisted him, but instead of breaking the chain, the iron standard of the gate crumbled into so much flaky iron rust, while padlock and attachments swung free upon the other. It was easy enough to enter after that.
"In the name of the law!" cried the constable, taking a little staff with a silver crown upon it in his hand. And at the word the gate creaked open and the crowd pressed in.
But the constable held up his hand.
"'In the name of the law,' I said. I might have put it, 'In the King's name,' but what I meant was that we are to proceed in decency and order—no unseemly rabbling, scuffling, or mischief making—otherwise ye have me to reckon with. Let no word of ghosts and siclike be heard. The case is infinitely more serious——"
"Hear to Jocky wi' his langnebbit words!" whispered Boyd Connoway in my ear.
"Infinitely more so, I say. It is evident to the meanest capacity—"
"Evidently!" whispered Connoway, grinning.
"—that a dangerous band of smugglers or burglars is in possession of the mansion of Marnhoul, and we must take them to a man!"
These words brought about a marked hesitation in the rear ranks, a wavering, and a tendency to slip away through the breach of the broken gate into the road.
"Halt there," cried Constable Black, holding the staff of office high. "I call upon you, every man, to assist his Majesty's officers. You are special constables, as soon as I get time to swear you in. Praise be, here's good Maister Kettle! He's a Justice of the Peace. He will hold you to it now and be my witness if ye refuse lawful aid. Now, forward! Quick march!"
And this formidable armed band took its way along the overgrown gravel avenue up to the front of the great house of Marnhoul. We boys (and Greensleeves close to my elbow) played along the flanks like skirmishers. All our spiritual fears were abated. At the name of the law, and specially after the display of the silver-crowned staff, we entered joyously into the game. If it had only been the arm of flesh we had to encounter, we were noways afraid—though it was a sad downcome from the solemn awe of coming to grips with the prince of darkness and his emissaries.
"You that have pistols that will go off, round with you to guard the back doors!" cried Constable John Black. "It's there the thieves have taken up their abode. The smoke is coming from the kitchen lum. I see it well. The rest, not so well armed, bide here with me under the protection of the law!"
And with that Constable Black, commonly called Jocky, elevated once more his staff in the air, and marched boldly to the fatal door. He went up the steps by which the Grey Lady was wont to descend to the clear moonlight to take her airing in the wood. A little behind went Connoway, in the same manner holding a "bourtree" pop-gun which he had just been fashioning for some lucky callant of his acquaintance.
Almost for the first time in his life Boyd Connoway had all the humour to himself. Nobody laughed at his imitation of Officer Jocky's pompous ways. They would do it afterwards in the safety of their own dwellings and about the winter fire. But not now—by no means now.
Even though supported by the majestic power of the law, the crowd kept respectfully edging behind wall and trees. Their eyes were directed warily upwards to the long array of windows from which (legend recounted) the Maitlands of Marnhoul had once during the troubles of the Covenant successfully defended themselves against the forces of the Crown.
Now be it understood once for all, the inhabitants of Eden Valley were peaceful and loyal citizens, except perhaps in what concerned the excise laws and the ancient and wholesome practice of running cargoes of dutiable goods without troubling his Majesty's excise officers about the matter. But they did not wish to support the law at the peril of their lives.
An irregular crackle of shots, the smashing of window glass in the back of the mansion, with two or three hurrahs, put some courage into them. On the whole it seemed less dangerous to get close in under the great vaulted porch. There, at least, they could not be reached by shot from the windows, while out in the open or under the uncertain shelter of tree boles, who knew what might happen? So there was soon a compact phalanx about the man in authority.
Constable Black, being filled with authority direct from the Lord-Lieutenant of the County, certainly had the instinct of magnifying his office. He raised his arm and knocked three times on the bleached and blistered panels of the great front door.
"Open, I command you! In the name of the law!" he shouted.
After the knocking there befell a pause, as it might be of twenty breaths—though nobody seemed to draw any. Such a silence of listening have I never heard. Yes, we heard it, and the new burst of firing from the rear of the house, the cheers of the excited assailants hardly seemed to break it, so deeply was our attention fixed on that great weather-beaten door of the Haunted House of Marnhoul.
Again Jocky, his face lint-white, and his voice coming and going jerkily, cried aloud the great name of the law. Again there was silence, deeper and longer than before.
At last from far within came a pattering as of little feet, quick and light. We heard the bolts withdrawn one by one, and as the wards of the lock rasped and whined, men got ready their weapons. The door swung back and against the intense darkness of the wide hall, with the light of evening on their faces, stood a girl in a black dress and crimson sash, holding by the hand a little boy of five, with blue eyes and tight yellow curls.
Both were smiling, and before them all that tumultuary array fell away as from something supernatural. The words "In the name of——" were choked on the lips of the constable. He even dropped his silver-headed staff, and turned about as if to flee. As for us we watched with dazzled eyes the marvels that had so suddenly altered the ideas of all men as to the Haunted House of Marnhoul.
But for a space no one moved, no one spoke. Only the tall young girl and the little child stood there, like children of high degree receiving homage on the threshold of their own ancestral mansion, facing the lifted bonnets and the pikes lowered as if in salutation.
MISS IRMA GIVES AN AUDIENCE
"My name is Irma Maitland, and this is my brother Louis!" Such were the famous words with which, in response to law and order in the person of Constable Jacky Black, the tall smiling girl in the doorway of the Haunted House of Marnhoul saluted her "rescuers."
"And how came you to be occupying this house?" demanded Mr. Josiah Kettle, father of Joseph the inventive. He was quite unaware of the ghastly terrors with which his son had peopled the Great House, but as the largest farmer on the estate he felt it to be his duty to protect vested rights.
"In the same way that you enter your house," said the girl; "we came in with a key, and have been living here ever since!"
"Are you not feared?" piped a voice from the crowd. It was afterwards found that it was Kettle junior who had spoken.
"Afraid!" answered the girl scornfully, holding her head higher than ever; "do you think that a few foolish people firing at our windows could make us afraid? Can they, Louis?" And as she spoke she looked fondly down at her little brother.
He drew nearer to his sister, looking up at her with a winning confidence, and said in as manly a voice as he could compass, "Certainly not, Irma! But—tell them not to do it any more!"
"You hear what my brother says," said the girl haughtily. "Let there be no more of this!"
"But—in right of law and order, I must know more about this!" cried Constable Jacky, lifting up his staff again. Somehow, however, the magic had gone from his words. Every one now knew that his thunder had a hollow sound.
"Ah, you are the gendarme—the official—the officer!" said the tall girl, with a more pronounced foreign accent than before, making him a little bow; "please go and tell your superiors that we are here because the place belongs to us—at least to my brother, and that I am staying to take care of him."
"But how did you come?" persisted the man in authority.
The tall girl looked over his head. Her glance, clear, cool, penetrating, scanned face after face, and then she said, as it were, regretfully, "There are no gentlefolk among you?"
There was the slightest shade of inquiry about words which might have seemed rude as a mere affirmation. Then she appeared to answer for herself, still with the same tinge of sadness faintly colouring her pride. "For this reason I cannot tell you how we came to be here."
Mr. Josiah Kettle felt called upon to assert himself.
"I have reason to believe," he said pompously, "that I am as good as any on the estate in the way of being a gentleman—me and my son Joseph. I am a Justice of the Peace, under warrant of the Crown, and so one day will my son Joseph—Jo, you rascal, come off that paling!"
But just then Jo Kettle had other fish to fry. From the bad eminence of the garden palisade he was devouring the new-comer with his eyes. As for me, I had shaken the hand of the lately adored Greensleeves from my arm.
The girl's glance stayed for an instant and no more upon the round and rosy countenance of Mr. Josiah Kettle, Justice of the Peace. She smiled upon him indulgently, but shook her head.
"I am sorry," she said, with gentle condescension, "that I cannot tell anything more to you. You are one of the people who broke our windows!"
Then Josiah Kettle unfortunately blustered.
"If you will not, young madam," he cried, "I can soon send them to you who will make you answer."
The young lady calmly took out of her pocket a dainty pair of ivory writing tablets, such as only the minister of the parish used in all Eden Valley, and he only because he had married a great London lady for his wife.
"I shall be glad of the name and address of the persons to whom you refer!" said Miss Irma (for so from that moment I began to call her in my heart).
"The factors and agents for this estate," Josiah Kettle enunciated grandly. The writing tablets were shut up with a snap of disappointment.
"Oh, Messrs. Smart, Poole & Smart," she said. "Why, I have known them ever since I was as high as little Louis."
Then she smiled indulgently upon Mr. Kettle, with something so easily grand and yet so sweet that I think the hearts of all went out to her.
"I suppose," she said, "that really you thought you were doing right in coming here and firing off guns without permission. It must be an astonishing thing for you to see this house of the Maitlands inhabited after so long. I do not blame your curiosity, but I fear I must ask you to send a competent man to repair our windows. For that we hold you responsible, Mr. Officer, and you, Mr. Justice of the Peace—you and your son Jo! Don't we, Louis?"
"I will see to that myself!" a voice, the same that had spoken before, came from the crowd. Miss Irma searched the circle without, however, coming to a conclusion. I do think that her glance lingered longer on my face than on any of the others, perhaps because Gerty Greensleeves was leaning on my shoulder and whispering in my ear. (What a nuisance girls are, sometimes!) So the glance passed on, with something in it at once calm and simple and high.
"If any of the gentlefolk of our station will call upon us," she went on, "we will tell them how we came to be here—the clergyman of the parish—or——" here she hesitated for the first time, "or his wife."
Instinctively she seemed to feel the difficulty. "Though we are not of their faith!" she added, smiling once more as with the air of serene condescension she had shown all through.
Then she nodded, and swept a curtsey with an undulating grace which I thought to be adorable, in spite of the suspicion of irony in it.
"Good-bye, good people," she said, letting her eyes again run the circuit of the sea of faces, reinforced by those who had been firing their blunderbusses and horse-pistols (now carefully concealed) so uselessly at the back windows of the house. "We are obliged for your visit. Salute them, Louis!"
Obediently the child carried his hand to the curls on his brow in the same fashion I had seen soldiers do at the militia training on the Dumfries sands, but with the same smilingly tolerant air of receiving and acknowledging the homage of vassals which both of them had shown from the beginning.
Then Miss Irma smiled upon us all once more, nodded to me (I am sure of it), and without another word, shut the door in our faces.
FIRST FOOT IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE
To understand what a sensation these strange events made in Eden Valley, it is necessary that you should know something of Eden Valley itself and how it was governed.
Governed, you say? Was it not within the King's dominions, and governed like every other part of these his Majesty's kingdoms? Had we of the Wide Valley risen against constituted authority and filled all Balcary Bay between Isle Rathan and the Red Haven with floating tea-chests?
Well, not exactly; but many a score of stealthy cargoes had been carried past our doors on horse-back, pony-back, shelty-back—up by Bluehills and over the hip of Ben Tudor. And often, often from the Isle of Man fleet had twenty score of barrels been dropped overboard just in time to prevent the minions of the law, as represented by H.M. ship Seamew, sloop-of-war, from seizing them. So you will observe that the revolt of Eden Valley against authority, though not quite so complete as that of the late New England colonies, yet proceeded from the same motives.
Only, as it typo happened, the tea-chests which were spilt in Boston Harbour were finished so far as the brewing of tea was concerned, while the kegs and firkins dropped overboard were easily recoverable by such as were in the secret. In a day or two, the tide being favourable and the nights dark enough, these same kegs would be found reposing in bulk in the recesses of Brandy Knowe, next by Collin Mill—save for a few, left in well defined places—one being left at the Manse for the Doctor himself. That was within the very wall of the kirkyard, and under the shadow of the clump of yews which had dripped upon the tombstones that covered at least three of his predecessors. A second reposed under the prize cabbages belonging to General Johnstone (who, as a young officer of Marines, had simulated the courage of Admiral Byng before Minorca, and like that gallant seaman, narrowly escaped being shot for his pains). General Johnstone's gardener knew well where this keg was hidden. But it contained liquid well-nigh sacred in the eyes of his master, and he had far too much common-sense ever to presume to find it. A third came to anchor under a peat-stack belonging to Mr. Shepstone Oglethorpe, the only Episcopalian within the parish bounds, and the descendent of an English military family which had once held possession of the Maitland estates during the military dragonnades of Charles II and James II, but had been obliged to restore the mansion and most of the property after the Prince of Orange made good his landing with his "Protestant wind" at Torbay. Enough, however, remained to make Mr. Shepstone Oglethorpe the next man in the parish after the minister and the General. He was, besides, a pleasant, gossipy, young-old, fluttery bachelor—a great acquisition at four-hours tea-drinkings, and much more of a praise to them that do well than any sort of a terror to evil-doers.
These three constituted the general staff of our commonwealth, and in spite of occasional forgetfulnesses as to the declaration of the aforesaid kegs, parcels of French silks and Malines lace, to H.M.'s Supervisor of Customs, King George had no more loyal subjects than these highest authorities in Eden Valley, ecclesiastical, military and civil. Then, after due interval, came the farmers of Eden Valley, honest, far-seeing, cautious men, slow of action, slower still of speech—not at all to be judged by the standard of the richest of them, Mr. Josiah Kettle. He was, in fact, a mere incomer, who had been promoted a Justice of the Peace because, on the occasion of the last scare as to a French invasion, he had made and carried out large and remunerative contracts for the supply of the militia and other troops hastily got together to protect the Solway harbours from Dryffe Sands to the Back Shore.
The siege of the Haunted House of Marnhoul happened on a Friday, the last school-keeping day of the week. Saturday was employed by the parish in digesting the news and forming opinions for the consumpt of the morrow. Meantime there was a pretty steady stream of the curious along the Marnhoul road, but the padlock had been replaced, and only the broken bar bore token of the storm which had passed that way.
On Sunday, however, a small oblong scrap of white attracted the attention of the nearer curious. It was attached, at about the level of the eyes, to the unbroken bar of the gate of Marnhoul, and on being approached with due care, was found to bear the following mysterious inscription—
"Sir Louis Maitland of Marnhoul, Bart., and Miss Irma Sobieski Maitland receive every afternoon from 2 to 5."
Marnhoul, Galloway, June 21.
"Keep us a'!" was the universal exclamation of Eden Valley as it read this solemnizing inscription. It was generally believed to be a challenge to the lawyers and the powers in general to come at these hours and turn the young people out.
And many were the opinions as to the legality of such a course. Law was not generally understood in the Galloway of that date, and though the Sheriff Substitute rode through the village once a month to spend a night over the "cartes" with his friend the General, he too only laughed and rode on. He was well known to me at the head of his profession, and to have the ear of the Government. Such studied indifference, therefore, could only be put down to a desire to wink at the proceedings of the children, illegal and unprecedented as these might be.
But I must now say something about my own folk.
Though undoubtedly originally Highland, and, as my father averred, able to claim kindred with the highest of his name, the MacAlpines had long been domiciled in the south. My father was the son of a neighbouring minister, and had only escaped the fate of succeeding his father in the charge by a Highland aversion to taking the sacrament at the age when he was called upon to do so—in order that, by the due order of the Church of Scotland, he might be taken on his trials as a student in Divinity. He had also, about that date, further complicated matters by marrying my mother, Grace Lyon, the penniless daughter of a noted Cameronian elder of the parish of Eden Valley.
In order to support her, and (after a little) us, John MacAlpine had accepted a small school far up the glen, from which, after a year or two, on the appointment of Dr. Forbes to the parish, he had followed his old college friend to Eden Valley itself. Under his care the little academy had gradually been organized on the newest and best scholastic lines known to the time. Even for girls classics and mathematics played a prominent part. Samplers and knitting, which had previously formed a notable branch of the curriculum, were banished to an hour when little Miss Huntingdon taught the girls, locked in her own department like Wykliffites in danger of the fires of Tower Hill. And at such times my father almost ran as he passed the door of the infant school and thought of the follies which were being committed within.
"Samplers," he was wont to mutter, "samplers—when they might be at their Ovid!"
My mother—Gracie Lyon that was—had none of the stern blood of her Cameronian forebears, nor yet my father's tempestuous Norland mood. She was gentle, patient, with little to say for herself—like Leah, tender-eyed (in the English, not in the Hebrew sense)—and I remember well that as a child one of my great pleasures was to stroke her cheek as she was putting me to sleep, saying, "Mother, how soft your skin is. It is like velvet!"
"Aye," she would answer, with a sigh gentle as herself, "so they used to tell me!"
And I somehow knew that "they" excluded my father, but whom it included I did not know then nor for many a day after.
But my grandmother, my mother's mother—ah, there indeed you were in a different world! She dwelt in a large house on the edge of the Marnhoul woods. My grandfather had the lease of the farm of Heathknowes, with little arable land, but a great hill behind it on which fed black-faced sheep, sundry cattle in the "low parks," and by the river a strip of corn land sufficient for the meal-ark and the stable feeding of his four stout horses. Also on my father's behalf my uncles conducted the lonely saw-mill that ate and ate into the Great Wood and yet never got any farther. There might be seen machinery for making spools—with water-driven lathes, which turned these articles, variously known as "bobbins" and "pirns," literally off the reel by the thousand. It was a sweet, birch-smelling place and my favourite haunt on all holidays. William Lyon, my grandfather, had had a tempestuous youth, from which, as he said, he had been saved "by the grace of God and Mary Lyon."
"Many a sore day she had with me," he would confess to me, for he took pleasure in my society, "but got me buckled down at last!"
As my grandmother also kept me in the most affectionate but complete subjection, the fact that neither one nor the other of us dared disobey "Mary Lyon" was a sort of bond between us. Yet my grandmother was not a very tall nor yet to the outward eye a powerful woman. You had to look her in the eye to know. But there you saw a flash that would have cowed a grenadier. There was something masterful and even martial in her walk, in the way she attacked the enemy of the moment, or the work that fell to her hand. All her ways were dominating without ever being domineering. But in the house of Heathknowes all knew that she had just to be obeyed, and there was an end to it.
When my father and she clashed, it was like the meeting of Miltonic thunderclouds over the Caspian. But on the whole it was safe to wager that even then grandmother got her way. John MacAlpine first discharged his Celtic electricity, and then disengaged his responsibility with the shrug of the right shoulder which was habitual to him. After all, was there not always Horace in his pocket—which he would finger to calm himself even in the heat of a family dispute?
A great school-master was my father, far ben in the secrets of the ancient world—and such a man is always very much of a humanist. My grandmother, alert, clear, decided on all doctrinal points, argumentative, with all her wits fine-edged by the Shorter Catechism, could not abide the least haziness of outline in religious belief.
She did not agree with my grandfather's easier ways, but then he did not argue with her, being far too wise a man.
"Eh, William," she would say, "ye will carry even to the grave some rag of the Scarlet Woman. And at the end I will not be surprised to find ye sitting on some knowetap amang the Seven Hills!"
But at least my grandfather was a Cameronian elder, in the little kirk down by the ford, to which the Lyons had resorted ever since the days of the societies—long before even worthy Mr. MacMillan of Balmaghie came into the Church, ordaining elders, and, along with the pious Mr. Logan of Buittle, even ordaining ministers for carrying on the work of the faithful protesting remnant.
But my father, John MacAlpine, both by office and by temperament, belonged to the Kirk of Scotland as by law established. So indeed did nine-tenths of the folk in the parish of Eden Valley. The band of Cameronians at the Ford, and the forlorn hope of Episcopalians in their hewn-stone chapel with the strange decorations, built on the parcel of ground pertaining to Mr. Shepstone Oglethorpe, were the only non-Establishers in the parish. Yet both, nevertheless, claimed to be the only true Church of Scotland, claimed it fiercely, with a fervour sharpened by the antiquity of their claims and the smallness of their numbers. This was especially true of the Cameronians, who were ever ready to give a reason for the faith that was in them. The Episcopalians lacked the Westminster Catechisms as a means of intellectual gymnastic. So far, therefore, they were handicapped, and indeed reduced to the mere persistent assertion that they, and they alone, were the apostolic Church, and if any out of their communion were saved, it must only be by the uncovenanted mercies of God.
Yet, though not within the sacred triangle of gentility (as it was known in Eden Valley), of which the manse, the General's bungalow, and the residence of Mr. Shepstone Oglethorpe occupied the three angles, my grandmother was the first caller upon the lonely children in the great house of Marnhoul.
I shall never forget her indignation when I went in to the dairy and told her in detail what had happened—of the forcing of the gates, and the firing upon the back windows. My grandfather, seated within doors, in his great triangular easy-chair at his own corner of the wide fireplace, looked up and remarked in his serene and far-off fashion that "such proceedings filled him with shame and sorrow."
The words and still more the tone roused my grandmother.
"William Lyon," she said, standing before him in the clean middle of the hearth which she had just been sweeping, and threatening him with the brush (she would not have touched him for anything in the world, for she recognized his position as an elder). "Hear to ye—'shame and sorrow'! Aye, well may ye say it. Had I been there I would have 'sinned and sorrowed' them. To go breaking into houses with swords and staves, and firing off powder and shot—all to frighten a pair of poor bairns! Certes, but I would have sorted them to rights—with tongue, aye, and with arm also."
And at this point Mary Lyon advanced a step so fiercely and with such martial energy, that, well inured as my grandfather was to the generous outbursts of his wife, he moved his chair back with a certain alacrity.
"Mary," he remonstrated, "Mr. Shepstone Oglethorpe was with them. So at least I understand, and also Mr. Kettle, who is a Justice of the Peace—these in addition to the constable——"
He got no further. My grandmother swooped upon the names, as perhaps he expected. It was by no means the first time that, in order to draw off the hounds of his wife's wrath, he had skilfully drawn a red herring across the trail.
"Shepstone—Shepstone!" she cried, "a useless, daidling body! What was he ever good for in this world but to tie his neckcloth and twirl his cane? Oh aye, he can maybe button his 'spats'! That is, if he doesna get the servant lass to do it for him. And Josiah Kettle! William, I wonder you are not shamed, goodman—to sit there in your own hearth-corner and name such a hypocrite to me——"
"Stop there, Mary," said her husband; "only a man's Maker has the right to call him a hypocrite——"
"Well, I am an Elder's wife, and I'll e'en be his Viceroy. Josiah Kettle is a hypocrite, and I hae telled him so to his face—not once, but a score of times. He has robbed the widow. He has impoverished the orphan. Fegs, if I were a man, I could not keep my hands off him, and, 'deed, I have hard enough work as it is. If there was a man about the house worth his salt——"
"Forgive your enemies——" suggested my grandfather, "do good——"
"So I would—so I would," cried my grandmother, "but first I would give the best cheese out o' the dairy-loft to see Josiah ducked head over heels in Blackmire Dub! Forgive—aye, certainly, since it is commanded. But a bit dressing down would do the like o' him no harm, and then the Lord could take His own turn at him after!"
Thus did my grandmother address all who came into contact with her, and there is every reason to believe that she had more than once similarly exhorted Mr. Josiah Kettle, rich farmer and money-lender though he was. Yet it is equally certain that if Mr. Kettle had been stricken with a dangerous and deadly malady which made his nearest kin flee from him, it would have been my grandmother who would have flown to nurse him with the same robust and forcible tenderness with which she oversaw the teething and other ills incidental to her daughter's children.
"As for Jocky Black," continued my grandmother, "the pomp of the atomy—'In the name of the law,' says he—I'd law him! I would e'en nip his bit stick from his puir twisted fingers and gie him his paiks—that is, if it were worth the trouble! As for me, get me my bonnet, Jen—my best Sunday leghorn with the puce chenille in it—I must look my featest going to a great house to pay my respects. And you shall come too, Duncan!" (She turned to me with her usual alertness.) "Run home and tidy—quick! Bid your mother put on your Sunday suit. No, Jen, I will not take you to fright the poor things out of their wits. Afterwards, we shall see. But at first, Duncan there, if he gets over his blateness, will be more of their age, and fear them less."
"If all I hear be true," said my Aunt Jen, pursing up her mouth as if she had bitten into a crab apple, "the lassie is little likely to be feared of you or any mortal on the earth!"
"Maybe aye—maybe no," snapped my grandmother, "at any rate be off with you into the back kitchen and see that the dishes are washed, so as not to be a show to the public. You and Meg have so little sense that whiles I wonder that I am your mother."
"You are not Meg's mother that I ken of!" her daughter responded acridly.
"I am her mistress, and the greater fool to keep such a handless hempie about the house! You, Janet, I have to provide for in some wise—such being the will of the Lord—His and your father's there. Now then, clear! Be douce! Let me get on my cloak and leghorn bonnet."
My grandmother being thus accoutred, and I invested with a black jacket, knee-breeches, shoes, and the regulation fluffy tie that tickled my throat and made me a week-day laughing stock to all who dared, Mistress Mary Lyon and I started to make our first call at the Great House of Marnhoul.
THE CENSOR OF MORALS
As my grandmother and I went down the little loaning from Heathknowes Farm she had an eye for everything. She "shooed" into duty's path a youngling hen with vague maternal aspirations which was wandering off to found a family by laying an egg in the underbrush about the saw-mill. She called back final directions to her daughter Jen and maidservant Meg, and saw that they were attended to before she would go on. She looked into the saw-mill itself in the by-going, and made sure that Rob McTurk was in due attendance on the whirling machinery which was turning off the spools, as it seemed to me, with the rapidity of light. She inquired as to the whereabouts of her husband.
"Oh, he was in a minute since!" said the politic Rob, who knew very well that my grandfather had climbed into the bark storage loft, and was at that moment sitting on a bundle, with a book in his hand and content in his heart at having escaped the last injunctions of his wife.
"Well, then," said Mistress Mary Lyon, "tell him from me——" And, as usual, a long list of recommendations followed.
"I'll see to it that he hears," said Rob McTurk imperturbably, knowing full well that his master could by no means help hearing, since my grandmother, in order to drown the noise of the whirling spindles and clattering cogs, had raised her voice till her every word must have penetrated to the pleasant, bark-scented place where, under his solitary skylight, Mr. William Lyon was so calmly reading his favourite Memoirs of the Life of Thomas Boston of Ettrick.
Besides my clothes, there were two things which interfered with the happiness of my jaunt. One was the presence of a third and most uncertain party to the affair—our rough, red house-collie Crazy, and the other was a doubt as to the way in which we would be received. For, be it remembered, I had seen Miss Irma Maitland shut the great door at the top of the Marnhoul steps on the raging crowd of assailants, and I wondered if we would not also find it slammed in our faces.
I had, however, confidence in my grandmother.
On the way to the padlocked gate at the entrance of the avenue which led to the Haunted House, my grandmother had abundant room for the exercise of her gifts. Never was there a woman who came across so many things that "she could not abide."
Such, for instance, were Widow Tolmie's ideas as to disposal of her nocturnal household rubbish on the King's highway. Into the Tolmie house went Mistress Mary Lyon, well aware that words would have no avail. In a minute she had requisitioned broom, bucket, and "claut," or byre-rake. In other three minutes all was over. Widow Tolmie had a clean frontage. The utensils had been washed and hung up, and my grandmother was delivering a lecture from one of the most frequently-quoted texts which are not to be found in Holy Writ, while she drew again upon her strong, energetic old hands the pair of lisle thread "mitts" she had taken off in order to effect her clean sweep.
After she had duly lectured the Widow Tolmie, she bade her in all amity "Good-day," and started to reform Crazy, who had been gyrating furiously across her path, trying apparently to bite his tail out by the roots. Crazy was, it appeared, a useless, good-for-nothing beast, a disgrace to a decent Elder's house, and I was ordered to stone him home.
Now I did not particularly wish Crazy to go with us to the Great House. I thought of the smiling carelessness of the girl's face I had seen there. Crazy might, and very likely would, misbehave himself. But still, Crazy was my friend, my companion, my joy. Stone Crazy! It was not to be thought of. He would certainly consider it some new kind of game and run barking after the missiles. I therefore shot so far beyond that the pebbles fell over the hedge, till my grandmother, whose sole method was an ungainly cross between a hurl and a jerk, took up the fusillade on her own account, with the result that Crazy was wrought up to the highest point of excitement, and, as I had foreseen, brought each stone back to my grandmother, barking joyously and pulling at her skirts for her to throw again.
"And just wait till I get you home," gasped Mrs. Mary Lyon, shaking her rough white head, "there shall a rope be put about your neck, my lad!"
But whether for the purpose of mere tying up, or to carry out the extreme sentence of the law, I did not gather. I resolved that, in the latter case, Crazy should come with me to the school-house. There was a place I knew of there, a crib at the end of the stick-cellar, which at a pinch would do admirably for Crazy. And I felt sure that Crazy, wholly incompetent at his own business of shepherding, would be a perfect "boys' dog" and a permanent acquisition to the Academy of Eden Valley. There was, of course, my father to consider. But I did not stop to think of that. The classics and Fred Esquillant were enough for him at the moment.
As she passed various cottage doors my grandmother had several bouts with joiners who blocked the road with unfinished carts and diffusive pots of red paint, with small wayside cowherds in charge of animals which considered the hedge-rows as their appointed pasturage, with boys going fishing who had learned at school that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, and who practised their Euclid to the detriment of their neighbours' fences.
But nothing of great moment occurred till, on the same knoll from which he had summoned us to view the smoke of the ghost's afternoon fire at Marnhoul, we encountered Boyd Connoway. He was stretched at length, as usual, one leg crossed negligently over the other. He had pivoted his head against a log for the purpose of seeing in three directions about him—towards the Great House, and both up and down the main road. A straw, believed to be always the same, was in his mouth.
A red rag to a bull, a match to tinder, are weak metaphors—quite incapable of expressing a tenth of what my grandmother felt at the sight of the pet idler of Eden Valley.
She rushed instantly to the assault, much as she would have led a forlorn hope. The dragoons who plunged their swords into great mows of straw in Covenanting barns, the unfortunates who pursued a needle through a load of hay, were employed in hopeful work when compared with Mistress Mary Lyon, searching with her tongue in this mass of self-sufficiency for any trace of Boyd Connoway's long-lost conscience.
"Why are you not at home?" she cried; "I heard Bridget complaining as I came by, that she could not feed the pig because she had nobody to bring her wood for her boiler fire—and she in the middle of her blanket washing!"
The husband whom fate and her own youthful folly had given to Bridget Connoway, took off his battered and weather-beaten hat with the native politeness of a born Irishman. He did not rise. That would have been too much to expect of him. But he uncrossed his legs and recrossed them the other way about.
"Mistress Lyon," he said indolently, but with the soft, well-anointed utterance of the blarneying islander, which does not die away till the third generation of the poorest exile from Erin, "now, misthress dear, consider!"
"I have considered you for seven years, and seven to the back of that, Boyd Connoway, and you are a lazy lout! Every year you get worse!"
My grandmother counted nothing so stimulating as truth spoken to the face. She acted, with all save her male grandchildren, on the ancient principle that "Praise to the face is an open disgrace!" And Boyd, in his time, had been singularly exempt from this kind of disgrace, so far as my grandmother was concerned.
"But consider, Mrs. Lyon," he went on tranquilly, while my relative stood in the road and eyed him with bitter scorn, "there's my wife, now she's up early and late. She's scrubbing and cleaning, and all for what?—just that yonder pack o' children o' hers should go out on the road and come trailing back in ten minutes dirtier than ever. She runs to Shepstone Oglethorpe's to give his maid a help in the mornings, all for a miserable three shillings a week. She takes no rest to the sole of her foot, nor gives nobody any either! Poor Bridget—I am sorry for Bridget. 'Take things easier, and you will feel better, Bridget,' I say. 'Trust in Providence, Bridget!' 'Think on what the Doctor said three Sundays but one ago from the very pulpit.' And would ye believe me, Mistress Lyon, that poor woman, being left to herself, threw all the weights at me one after the other—aye, and would have thrown the scales too if I had not come away!"
Here Connoway sighed and stretched himself luxuriously, rubbing the stiff fell of his hair meditatively as he did so.
"Ah, poor Bridget," he continued, with pathos in his voice, "Bridget is so dreadfully unresigned, Mistress Lyon. Often have I said to her, 'Be resigned, Bridget—trust in Providence, Bridget!' But as sure as I point out Bridget's duty, there is something broken in our house!"
"Pity but it was your head, Boyd Connoway! Come away, child!" cried my grandmother, "quick—lest I do that man an injury. He puts me in such a state that I declare to goodness I am thankful I have not a poker in my hand! Now there's your grandfather——"
But she went no further in the discussion of her own lesser household burden. For there right in front of us was the great gate, the battered notice to trespassers, the broken standard on which the padlock, now removed, had worn a rusty hollow, and in its place we read the little white notice concerning the hours at which the mistress of the mansion could receive visitors.
"Oh, the poor young things!" said my grandmother, her anger (as was its wont) instantly cooling, and even Boyd Connoway dropping back into his own place as perhaps a necessary factor in an ill-regulated but on the whole rather bearable world.
The gate creaked open slowly. My grandmother drew herself up. For did she not come of the best blood of the Westland Whigs, great-granddaughter of that Bell of Whiteside, kinsman of Kenmure's, who was shot by Lag on the moor of Kirkconnel, near to the Lynn through which the Tarff foams white?
For me, I was chiefly conscious of the bushes and shrubs on either side the avenue, broken and trampled in the tumultuous rush of the populace on the day of the discovery. I felt guilty. By that way Gerty Greensleeves and I had passed, Gerty very close to my elbow. And now, like the rolling away of a panorama picture in a show, Gerty Greensleeves, and all other maids save one, had passed out of my life. Or so, in my ignorance, I thought at the time.
For no woman ever passes wholly out of any man's life—that is, if he lives long enough. She steals back again with the coming of life's gloaming, with the shadows of night creeping across the hills, or the morning mists swimming up out of the valley. Sometimes she is weeping, but more often smiling. For there is time enough, since the man last thought of her, for all tears to be wiped from her eyes. But come she will. Yet sometimes it is not so. She does not smile. She only stands on the threshold of a man's soul with reproachful eyes, and lips drawn and mute. Then it is not good to be that man.
But in those days, being a boy, carried along in the waft of my grandmother's skirt, I knew nothing about such things.
I watched my grandmother take the antique knocker between her fingers, noting with housewifely approval that it had recently been polished. I have seldom passed a more uncomfortable time of waiting, than that between the resounding clatter of grandmother's knocking reverberating through the empty house, and the patter of feet, the whispering, and at last the opening of the door.
Then I saw again the tall girl with the proudly angled chin, the crown of raven curls, and the pair of brave outlooking eyes that met all the world with something that was even a little bold.
I had been afraid that my grandmother, so indiscriminating in her admonitions, might open fire upon this forlorn couple, isolated in the great haunted house of Marnhoul. But I need not have troubled.
My grandmother had the instinct of caressing maternity for all the young, the forlorn, the helpless. So she only opened her arms and cried out, "Oh, you dears—you poor darlings!"
And the little boy, moved by the instinctive yearning of all that needed protection, of everything of tender years and little strength towards the breast that had suckled and the hands that had nursed, let go his sister's hand and ran happily to my grandmother. She caught him in her arms and lifted him up with the easy habitual gesture of one long certified as a mother in Israel. He threw his little arms about my grandmother's neck, nestling there just as the rest of us used to do when we were in any trouble.
"I like you! You are good!" he said.
Miss Irma and I were therefore left eye to eye while Louis Maitland, in spite of his title, was so rapidly making friends with the actual head of our family.
Irma eyed me, and I did the like to Miss Irma—that is, to the best of my ability, which in this matter was nothing to hers. She seemed to look me through and through. At which I quailed, and then she appeared a little more content.
With the child still in her arms, and her voice, lately so harsh in rebuke, now tuned to the cooing of a nesting dove, my grandmother introduced herself.
"Child," she said to Miss Irma, "I am your nearest neighbour. Who should come to welcome you if not I? You will find me at the farm of Heathknowes. It is my goodman's saw-mills that you hear clattering from where you stand, and I am come to see if there is anything I can do to help you."
"I thank you——" began the girl, and then hesitated. She had meant to declare that they wanted for nothing, perhaps to indicate that the wife of a tenant was hardly a fitting "first-foot" to venture over the threshold of a baronet of ancient name and of the sister who acted as his sponsor, tutor and governor.
But then Miss Irma did not know my grandmother as Eden Valley did, still less as we who were, as one might say, of Caesar's household.
"Let me come in—I will soon see for myself!" quoth my grandmother, and marched straight into the front hall of the Maitlands, that immense dusky cavern I had only once looked into over the pikes and pitchforks. She carried Sir Louis, tenth baronet of that name, on one arm. With her free right hand she went hither and thither, sweeping her hand along the ledges of great oak cabinets, blowing at the dust on the stone mantelpiece, and finally clearing the great curtained south-western window to let in the sun in flakes and patches of scarlet and gold.
Then she turned to Miss Irma and said in the tone of an expert who has inspected a grave piece of work and not found it wanting, "You have done very well, my dear!"
And at this Miss Irma changed the fashion of her countenance. Pleasure shone scarce concealed. It was certain that up to that moment she had regarded my grandmother somewhat in the light of an intruder, but she could not bear up against such an appeal from housewife to housewife.
"Will you come up-stairs?" she said, "I have hardly got begun here yet."
THE APOTHEOSIS OF AGNES ANNE
No word or look included me in the invitation which Miss Irma tendered to my grandmother. Nevertheless I followed, not knowing what else to do. I felt huge, awkward, clumsy of build and knotty of elbow and knee. I was conscious that my knuckles were red. I felt in the way and unhappy. In short, I hulked. Indeed, but that I was able to watch two eyes of darkest grey beneath a wisp of untamed curls on a small and shapely head, and the look of the thing, I would far rather have stopped out on the doorstep with Crazy.
And perhaps that would have been the best place for me, all things considered.
After we had passed two or three rooms in review, all of which were, as it appeared to me, garnished with the ordinary sheets and coverlets of a bedroom, my grandmother abruptly turned upon Miss Irma.
"Let me see your hands!" she said, in her ordinary brusque manner. I was in terror lest we should be shown to the door. But the freemasonry of work, the knowledge of things feminine, the fine little nod of appreciation at a detail which is perfectly lost on a man, the flush of answering approbation had done their perfect work between the old woman and the girl.
Such things were not within my ken, and my grandmother promptly banished me. She set down the little baronet at the same time with a "Run and play, my doo!" She issued directions for me to charge myself with the responsibility. I would much rather have stayed to hear what grandmother and Miss Irma had to say one to the other, because I was more interested in that. But the choice was not given to me. Go I must.
And with her first personal word of acknowledgment that I was a human being, Miss Irma, calling me by name, indicated the "drawing-room" as the place where we might await the end of this first congress of the Holy Alliance.
I was some little alarmed at the place, the name of which so far I had only seen in books, but little Sir Louis whispered in my ear as he took my hand, "We can play there. That's only what sister Irma calls it!"
When my grandmother and Miss Irma appeared after an absence of half-an-hour they found the two of us deep in a game of bat-ball. I made an attempt to hide the ball, fearing lest Miss Irma might think I usually carried such things about with me (I had confiscated it in class that day). But I need not have troubled, she paid no attention whatever to me, continuing to hold my grandmother's hand and look into the wise, stormy, tender, emphatic, much-enduring old face. And I wondered at my relative, and saw in this marvel one more proof of her own infallibility.
"You must not stay any longer in this great house alone," she was saying, "I will send you—somebody."
Then she looked again at Miss Irma's hands, and though I did not see why, nor understand at the time, she added, "No—no—it will never do—never do!" I wish I could say that on this first occasion of our meeting, Miss Irma devoted a little of her attention to me. But the truth is, she had eyes for nobody but Mistress Mary Lyon of Heathknowes. True, a glance occasionally came my way, which caused me instinctively to straighten myself up and square my shoulders, as I did in the playground when acting as drill sergeant to the juniors. But the very same glance with quite as much personality in it, passed on to Crazy, who, to the exuberant delight of little Louis, had by this time intruded himself. It was impossible for the most self-conceited to bring away much comfort or encouragement from favours so slight as these.
Even Louis, after the advent of Crazy, considered me only as his drill-sergeant, and valued me according as Crazy consented to show off his tricks at the word of command from me.
"Behave, sir! You are in the kirk!" cried I. And lo! to the boy's wonder Crazy, who had been gambolling about on the bare floor, sank down with his head between his paws and his eyes hypocritically closed, till I gave the signal, "Now fight the French!" Upon which uprose Crazy like a dancing bear on his hind legs, and jumped about with flaming eyes, barking with all his might. This, being the performance which pleased Crazy most, was also the favourite with the young Sir Louis.
Indeed leavetaking was difficult, though by no means on my account. For Miss Irma was all taken up with grandmother and little Louis with Crazy. Nobody minded me, and Miss Irma did not so much as reach me a finger, though at the last she just nodded, and Sir Louis had to be removed wailing, because he wished to keep his arms tight about the shaggy neck of Master Crazy, that singularly indifferent sheep-dog, but excellent variety entertainer.
It was, however, promised that Crazy should return, and as I knew that Crazy would by no means perform without me, considering himself bound to me by hours of patient labour and persistent fellow truantry, I saw some light on the horizon of an otherwise dark future. I must go back too. But in the meantime Louis wept uncomforted, and "batted" his sister with baby palms in the impotence of his anger as she carried him within.
My grandmother said nothing of any importance on the way home. She was evidently thinking deeply, and confined herself to "Hush, you there!" and "Do ye hear what I was saying to ye?" Under a fire of suchlike remarks, delivered more or less at random, and without the least discrimination between the barking of Crazy (the effect) and me (the cause)—I kept a little in the rear so that I might have a sober face on me when she turned round, while the less subtle Crazy galloped in furious circles yapping and leaping up even in my grandmother's face. He was, however, useful in drawing her fire, and though I had to keep a sharp look-out for the stones she caught up to throw at Crazy (who ran no personal danger) our home-coming was effected in good order and with considerable amusement to myself.
But on her arrival at Heathknowes, Mrs. Mary Lyon found that there were forces in the universe which even she was powerless to conquer.
Meg, the "indoor" lass at Heathknowes, refused point-blank to go one foot in the direction of the "Ghaist's Hoose." She persisted in her refusal even when addressed by the awe-inspiring baptismal name of Margaret Simprin Hetherington, and reminded of the terms of her engagement.
No, Margaret Simprin Hetherington would not—could not—dared not—stay a night in the great house of Marnhoul. Whatever my grandmother might say it was not so nominated in the bond. She had been hired to serve about the farmhouse of Heathknowes, and she did not mind carrying their dinners to the workmen in the saw-mill——
"No," interpolated my grandmother, "nor taking an hour-and-a-half to do it in!"
Upon which, as if stirred by some association of ideas, Meg added that she would go none to Marnhoul Big Hoose, "because not a soul would come near the place." It did not matter whether she believed in Grey Ladies with rain-drops pattering through them or not—other people did, and she would not be banished "among the clocks and rattons"—no, not for double wages!
My grandmother, indeed, explained that there was no question of ladies grey or rain-drops pattering, but of obedience to her legal mistress.
But she knew that the cause was lost, and I am quite sure anticipated the reply of Margaret Simprin Hetherington, which was to the effect that no lass, indoor or outdoor, was more willing to obey her mistress than she, but it would be in the place in which she had been hired to serve—there and not elsewhere.
For once my grandmother was nonplussed. Being a good Galloway woman she knew that of all things it is most impossible to run counter to the superstitions of her people. Perhaps she retained a touch of these herself. But, as she said, "The grace of the Lord can overcome all the wiles of the Evil One! And Mary Lyon would like to see witch or warlock, ghost or ghostling, that would come in her road when she went forth under His banner." On the darkest night she marched unafraid, conquering and to conquer, having the superstitions born in her, but knowing all the same (and all the better for that knowledge) on which side were the bigger battalions.
It was no use to send my Aunt Jen, who had once been "in a place" before. Aunt Jen would go, but—she would take her tongue with her. She had her mother's command of language, but was utterly destitute of her tact, lacking also, as was natural, the maternal instinct. As, in a moment of exasperation my grandmother once said of her, "Our Jinnet is dried up like a crab-tree in the east wind!"
She would certainly undo all that Mistress Mary Lyon had done, and "that puir young lassie" (as she called Miss Irma) carried a warlike flash in her eye which warned the rugged grandmotherly heart that she and our Aunt Jen could not long bide at peace in the same house.
My mother might have done, as far as temper was concerned, but she wanted what grandmother called the "needcessary birr." Besides which she had more than enough to do in caring for her own house, mending my father's clothes and misinforming the public as to Post Office regulations. On the whole, though she loved her married daughter, I think Mary Lyon was not a little sorry for my father, John MacAlpine, in his choice of a housekeeper. I could see this by the occasional descents she made upon our house, and the way she had of going about the rooms, setting things to rights, silent save for a running comment of soft sniffs upon the nose of contempt—the while my mother, after a sympathetic glance at me, devoted herself to silent prayer that grandmother would not light upon anything very bad.
With my grandmother, to fail in the due ordering of a house was a cardinal sin. And my poor mother sinned, not indeed by intention, hardly even in labour, but in that appearance of easy perfection, which in a household is the result of excellent plans thoroughly and timeously carried out. She was apt to be found late of an afternoon in a chair with a book—and the dinner dishes still unwashed. Then Agnes Anne, my sister, would come in without a word. Her school frock would be quickly shrouded under a great coarse apron. If I happened to be within doors I was beckoned to assist. If not, not—and Agnes Anne did them herself while my mother slept on.
But I do not think that grandmother knew this, for she very generally ignored Agnes Anne altogether, having a decided preference for boys in a family. It fell out, therefore, that when she came a little shamefacedly to consult my father, as she sometimes did in days of difficulty—for under a show of contempt she often really submitted to his judgment—it was given to Agnes Anne to say suddenly, "Let me go to Marnhoul, grandmother!" If Balaam's ass (or say, Crazy), had spoken these words, grandmother could not have been more astonished.
More so still when John MacAlpine nodded approval.
"Yes, let the lassie go—let her put her hand to the work. The burden cannot be too soon laid on young shoulders—that is, if they are strong enough."
Mary Lyon stared, as if both he and his daughter had suddenly taken leave of their senses.
"Why, what can the lassie do?" she cried; "I thought you were making her nothing but a don in the dead languages!"
"I can bake, and brew, and wash, and keep a house clean," said Agnes Anne, putting in her testimonials, since there was no one so well acquainted with them. My father nodded. He was not so blind as many might suppose. My mother said, "Aye, 'deed, she can that. Agnes Anne is a good lass. I know not what I should do without her!"
My grandmother looked about at the new air of tidiness, and for the first time a suspicion crossed her mind that, out of a pit from which she was expecting no such treasure, some one in her own image might possibly have been digged among her descendants of the second generation. She looked at Agnes Anne with a ray of hope. Agnes Anne stood the awful searching power of that eye. Agnes Anne did not flinch. Mary Lyon nodded her head with its man's close-cropped locks of rough white hair in lyart locks about her ears.
"You'll do, Agnes Anne, you'll do," she said, adding cautiously, "that is, after a time"—so as not to exalt the girl above measure. It was, however, recognized by all as a definite triumph for my sister. My grandmother, a rigid Calvinist, who believed in Election with all her intellect, and acted Free Will with all her heart, elected Agnes Anne upon the spot. Had the girl not willed to rise out of the pit of sloth and mere human learning? And lo! she had arisen. Thenceforth Agnes Anne stood on a pedestal, and for a while one sturdy disciple of Calvin's thought heretically of the pure doctrine. Here was a human being who had willed, and, according to my grandmother, had made of herself a miracle of grace.
But she recalled herself to more orthodox sentiments. The steel was out of the sheath, indeed, but it had to be tried. Even yet Agnes Anne might be found wanting.
"When will you be ready to start?" she said, turning her black twinkling eyes upon her granddaughter.
"In five minutes," said Agnes Anne boldly.
"And you are not frightened?"
"Of these vain tales—ghosts, hauntings, and so forth. Our Meg Simprin (silly maid!) would not move a foot, and you are far younger."
"I am no younger than those who are in the house already," said Agnes Anne, with great sense, which even I would hardly have expected from her, "and if ghosts are spirits, as the Bible says, I do not see that they can interfere with housework!"
My grandmother rose solemnly from her seat, patted Agnes Anne on the top-knot of her hair, shook hands with John MacAlpine, nodded meaningly at my mother, and said, "Come along, young lass," in a tone which showed that the aged shepherdess had unexpectedly found a lamb whom she long counted lost absolutely butting against the door of the sheep-fold.
This was the apotheosis of Agnes Anne. Her life dates from that evening in our kitchen, even as mine did from the afternoon when one half the fools of Eden Valley were letting off shot-guns at the back windows of Marnhoul Great House, while Miss Irma withstood the others on the threshold of the front door.
THE DOCTOR'S ADVENT
The firm of lawyers in Dumfries, the agents for the Maitland properties, did not seem to be taking any measures to dispossess Miss Irma and young Sir Louis. Perhaps they, too, had private information. Perhaps those who had brought the children to Marnhoul may have been in the confidence of that notable firm of Smart, Poole & Smart in the High Street. At any rate they made no move towards ejection. They may also have argued that any one who could dispossess the ghosts and make Marnhoul once more a habitable mansion, was welcome to the tenancy.
It was the Reverend Doctor Gillespie who, first of all the distinguished men of the parish, received in some slight degree the confidence of Miss Irma. Grandmother knew more, of course, and perhaps, also, Agnes Anne. But, with the feeling of women towards those whom they approve, they became Irma's accomplices. Women are like that. When you tell them a secret, if they don't like you, they become traitors. If they do, they are at once confederates. But the Doctor visited Marnhoul as a deputation, officially, and also for the purpose of setting the minds of the genteel at rest.
The Doctor's lady gave him no peace till he did his duty. The General's womenfolk at the Bungalow were clamorous. It was not seemly. Something must be done, and since the action of Mr. Shepstone Oglethorpe on the occasion of the assault on the house had put him out of the question, and as the General flatly refused to have anything to do with the affair, it was obvious that the duty must fall to the Doctor.
Nor could a better choice have been made. Eden Valley has known many preachers, but never another such pastor—never a shepherd of the sheep like the Doctor. I can see him yet walking down the manse avenue—it had been just "the Loaning" in the days before the advent of the second Mrs. Doctor Gillespie—a silver-headed cane in his hand, everything about him carefully groomed, and his very port breathing a peculiarly grave and sober dignity. Grey locks, still plentiful, clustered about his head. His cocked hat (of the antique pattern which, early in his ministry, he had imported by the dozen from Versailles) never altered in pattern. Buckles of unpolished silver shone dully at his knee and bent across his square-toed shoes.
Above all spread his neckcloth, spotless, enveloping, cumbrous, reverence-compelling, a cravat worthy of a Moderator. And indeed the Doctor—our Doctor, parish minister of Eden Valley, had "passed the Chair" of the General Assembly. We were all proud of the fact, even top-lofty Cameronians like my grandmother secretly delighting in the thought of the Doctor in his robes of office.
"There would be few like him away there in Edinburgh," she would say. "The Doctor's a braw man, and does us credit afore the great of the land—for a' that he's a Moderate!"
And had he been the chief of all the Moderates, the most volcanic and aggressive of Moderates, my grandmother would have found some good thing to say of a fellow-countryman of so noble a presence—"so personable," and "such a credit to the neighbourhood."
Wisdom, grave and patient, was in every line of his kindly face. Something boyish and innocent told that the shades of the prison-house had never wholly closed about him. It was good to lift the hat to Dr. Gillespie as he went along—hat a little tip-tilted off the broadly-furrowed brow. In the city he is very likely to stop and regard the most various wares—children's dolls or ladies' underpinnings. But think not that the divine is interested in such things. His mind is absent—in communion with things very far away. Lift your hat and salute him. He will not see you, but—it will do you good!
William Gillespie was the son of a good ministerial house. His father had occupied the same pulpit. He himself had been born in his own manse—which is to say, in all the purple of which our grey Puritan land can boast. We were proud of the Doctor, and had good reason therefor. I have said that even my field-preaching grandmother looked upon the Erastian with a moisture quasi-maternal in her eyes, and as for us who "sat under him and listened to his speech," we came well-nigh to worship him.