Ranald Bannerman's Boyhood
Part 1 out of 4
Produced by Jonathan Ingram and PG Distributed Proofreaders
RANALD BANNERMAN'S BOYHOOD
II. THE GLIMMER OF TWILIGHT
III. MY FATHER
V. I BEGIN LIFE
VI. NO FATHER
VII. MRS. MITCHELL IS DEFEATED
VIII. A NEW SCHOOLMISTRESS
IX. WE LEARN OTHER THINGS
X. SIR WORM WYMBLE
XI. THE KELPIE
XII. ANOTHER KELPIE
XIII. WANDERING WILLIE
XIV. ELSIE DUFF
XV. A NEW COMPANION
XVI. I GO DOWN HILL
XVII. THE TROUBLE GROWS
XVIII. LIGHT OUT OF DARKNESS
XX. I HAVE A FALL AND A DREAM
XXI. THE BEES' NEST
XXII. VAIN INTERCESSION
XXV. TURKEY PLOTS
XXVI. OLD JOHN JAMIESON
XXVII. TURKEY'S TRICK
XXVIII. I SCHEME TOO
XXIX. A DOUBLE EXPOSURE
XXXI. A WINTER'S RIDE
XXXII. THE PEAT-STACK
XXXIII. A SOLITARY CHAPTER
XXXIV. AN EVENING VISIT
XXXV. A BREAK IN MY STORY
XXXVI. I LEARN THAT I AM NOT A MAN
THE BILBERRY PICKERS
THE BABY BROTHER
THE DRESSING OF LITTLE DAVIE
TURKEY LIGHTS A FIRE
I GO INTO THE FIELDS
MAKING THE SNOWBALL
READING TO ELSIE AND TURKEY
A SUDDEN STOP
A READING LESSON
I RETURN HOME
_Coloured Illustrations by A.V. Wheelhouse: and Other 36
Black-and-White Illustrations by Arthur Hughes_.
I do not intend to carry my story one month beyond the hour when I saw
that my boyhood was gone and my youth arrived; a period determined to
some by the first tail-coat, to me by a different sign. My reason for
wishing to tell this first portion of my history is, that when I look
back upon it, it seems to me not only so pleasant, but so full of
meaning, that, if I can only tell it right, it must prove rather
pleasant and not quite unmeaning to those who will read it. It will
prove a very poor story to such as care only for stirring adventures,
and like them all the better for a pretty strong infusion of the
impossible; but those to whom their own history is interesting--to
whom, young as they may be, it is a pleasant thing to be in the
world--will not, I think, find the experience of a boy born in a very
different position from that of most of them, yet as much a boy as any
of them, wearisome because ordinary.
If I did not mention that I, Ranald Bannerman, am a Scotchman, I
should be found out before long by the kind of thing I have to tell;
for although England and Scotland are in all essentials one, there are
such differences between them that one could tell at once, on opening
his eyes, if he had been carried out of the one into the other during
the night. I do not mean he might not be puzzled, but except there was
an intention to puzzle him by a skilful selection of place, the very
air, the very colours would tell him; or if he kept his eyes shut, his
ears would tell him without his eyes. But I will not offend fastidious
ears with any syllable of my rougher tongue. I will tell my story in
English, and neither part of the country will like it the worse for
I will clear the way for it by mentioning that my father was the
clergyman of a country parish in the north of Scotland--a humble
position, involving plain living and plain ways altogether. There was
a glebe or church-farm attached to the manse or clergyman's house, and
my father rented a small farm besides, for he needed all he could make
by farming to supplement the smallness of the living. My mother was an
invalid as far back as I can remember. We were four boys, and had no
sister. But I must begin at the beginning, that is, as far back as it
is possible for me to begin.
The Glimmer of Twilight
I cannot tell any better than most of my readers how and when I began
to come awake, or what it was that wakened me. I mean, I cannot
remember when I began to remember, or what first got set down in my
memory as worth remembering. Sometimes I fancy it must have been a
tremendous flood that first made me wonder, and so made me begin to
remember. At all events, I do remember one flood that seems about as
far off as anything--the rain pouring so thick that I put out my hand
in front of me to try whether I could see it through the veil of the
falling water. The river, which in general was to be seen only in
glimpses from the house--for it ran at the bottom of a hollow--was
outspread like a sea in front, and stretched away far on either
hand. It was a little stream, but it fills so much of my memory with
its regular recurrence of autumnal floods, that I can have no
confidence that one of these is in reality the oldest thing I
remember. Indeed, I have a suspicion that my oldest memories are of
dreams,--where or when dreamed, the good One who made me only knows.
They are very vague to me now, but were almost all made up of bright
things. One only I can recall, and it I will relate, or more properly
describe, for there was hardly anything done in it. I dreamed it
often. It was of the room I slept in, only it was narrower in the
dream, and loftier, and the window was gone. But the ceiling was a
ceiling indeed; for the sun, moon, and stars lived there. The sun was
not a scientific sun at all, but one such as you see in penny
picture-books--a round, jolly, jocund man's face, with flashes of
yellow frilling it all about, just what a grand sunflower would look
if you set a countenance where the black seeds are. And the moon was
just such a one as you may see the cow jumping over in the pictured
nursery rhyme. She was a crescent, of course, that she might have a
face drawn in the hollow, and turned towards the sun, who seemed to be
her husband. He looked merrily at her, and she looked trustfully at
him, and I knew that they got on very well together. The stars were
their children, of course, and they seemed to run about the ceiling
just as they pleased; but the sun and the moon had regular
motions--rose and set at the proper times, for they were steady old
folks. I do not, however, remember ever seeing them rise or set; they
were always up and near the centre before the dream dawned on me. It
would always come in one way: I thought I awoke in the middle of the
night, and lo! there was the room with the sun and the moon and the
stars at their pranks and revels in the ceiling--Mr. Sun nodding and
smiling across the intervening space to Mrs. Moon, and she nodding
back to him with a knowing look, and the corners of her mouth drawn
down. I have vague memories of having heard them talk. At times I feel
as if I could yet recall something of what they said, but it vanishes
the moment I try to catch it. It was very queer talk, indeed--about
me, I fancied--but a thread of strong sense ran through it all. When
the dream had been very vivid, I would sometimes think of it in the
middle of the next day, and look up to the sun, saying to myself: He's
up there now, busy enough. I wonder what he is seeing to talk to his
wife about when he comes down at night? I think it sometimes made me a
little more careful of my conduct. When the sun set, I thought he was
going in the back way; and when the moon rose, I thought she was going
out for a little stroll until I should go to sleep, when they might
come and talk about me again. It was odd that, although I never
fancied it of the sun, I thought I could make the moon follow me as I
pleased. I remember once my eldest brother giving me great offence by
bursting into laughter, when I offered, in all seriousness, to bring
her to the other side of the house where they wanted light to go on
with something they were about. But I must return to my dream; for the
most remarkable thing in it I have not yet told you. In one corner of
the ceiling there was a hole, and through that hole came down a ladder
of sun-rays--very bright and lovely. Where it came from I never
thought, but of course it could not come from the sun, because there
he was, with his bright coat off, playing the father of his family in
the most homely Old-English-gentleman fashion possible. That it was a
ladder of rays there could, however, be no doubt: if only I could
climb upon it! I often tried, but fast as I lifted my feet to climb,
down they came again upon the boards of the floor. At length I did
succeed, but this time the dream had a setting.
I have said that we were four boys; but at this time we were
five--there was a little baby. He was very ill, however, and I knew he
was not expected to live. I remember looking out of my bed one night
and seeing my mother bending over him in her lap;--it is one of the
few things in which I do remember my mother. I fell asleep, but by and
by woke and looked out again. No one was there. Not only were mother
and baby gone, but the cradle was gone too. I knew that my little
brother was dead. I did not cry: I was too young and ignorant to cry
about it. I went to sleep again, and seemed to wake once more; but it
was into my dream this time. There were the sun and the moon and the
stars. But the sun and the moon had got close together and were
talking very earnestly, and all the stars had gathered round them. I
could not hear a word they said, but I concluded that they were
talking about my little brother. "I suppose I ought to be sorry," I
said to myself; and I tried hard, but I could not feel sorry. Meantime
I observed a curious motion in the heavenly host. They kept looking at
me, and then at the corner where the ladder stood, and talking on, for
I saw their lips moving very fast; and I thought by the motion of them
that they were saying something about the ladder. I got out of bed and
went to it. If I could only get up it! I would try once more. To my
delight I found it would bear me. I climbed and climbed, and the sun
and the moon and the stars looked more and more pleased as I got up
nearer to them, till at last the sun's face was in a broad smile. But
they did not move from their places, and my head rose above them, and
got out at the hole where the ladder came in. What I saw there, I
cannot tell. I only know that a wind such as had never blown upon me
in my waking hours, blew upon me now. I did not care much for kisses
then, for I had not learned how good they are; but somehow I fancied
afterwards that the wind was made of my baby brother's kisses, and I
began to love the little man who had lived only long enough to be our
brother and get up above the sun and the moon and the stars by the
ladder of sun-rays. But this, I say, I thought afterwards. Now all
that I can remember of my dream is that I began to weep for very
delight of something I have forgotten, and that I fell down the ladder
into the room again and awoke, as one always does with a fall in a
dream. Sun, moon, and stars were gone; the ladder of light had
vanished; and I lay sobbing on my pillow.
I have taken up a great deal of room with this story of a dream, but
it clung to me, and would often return. And then the time of life to
which this chapter refers is all so like one, that a dream comes in
well enough in it. There is a twilight of the mind, when all things
are strange, and when the memory is only beginning to know that it has
got a notebook, and must put things down in it.
It was not long after this before my mother died, and I was sorrier
for my father than for myself--he looked so sad. I have said that as
far back as I can remember, she was an invalid. Hence she was unable
to be much with us. She is very beautiful in my memory, but during the
last months of her life we seldom saw her, and the desire to keep the
house quiet for her sake must have been the beginning of that freedom
which we enjoyed during the whole of our boyhood. So we were out every
day and all day long, finding our meals when we pleased, and that, as
I shall explain, without going home for them. I remember her death
clearly, but I will not dwell upon that. It is too sad to write much
about, though she was happy, and the least troubled of us all. Her
sole concern was at leaving her husband and children. But the will of
God was a better thing to her than to live with them. My sorrow at
least was soon over, for God makes children so that grief cannot
cleave to them. They must not begin life with a burden of loss. He
knows it is only for a time. When I see my mother again, she will not
reproach me that my tears were so soon dried. "Little one," I think I
hear her saying, "how could you go on crying for your poor mother when
God was mothering you all the time, and breathing life into you, and
making the world a blessed place for you? You will tell me all about
it some day." Yes, and we shall tell our mothers--shall we not?--how
sorry we are that we ever gave them any trouble. Sometimes we were
very naughty, and sometimes we did not know better. My mother was very
good, but I cannot remember a single one of the many kisses she must
have given me. I remember her holding my head to her bosom when she
was dying--that is all.
My father was a tall, staid, solemn man, who walked slowly with long
strides. He spoke very little, and generally looked as if he were
pondering next Sunday's sermon. His head was grey, and a little bent,
as if he were gathering truth from the ground. Once I came upon him in
the garden, standing with his face up to heaven, and I thought he was
seeing something in the clouds; but when I came nearer, I saw that his
eyes were closed, and it made me feel very solemn. I crept away as if
I had been peeping where I ought not. He did not talk much to us. What
he said was very gentle, and it seemed to me it was his solemnity that
made him gentle. I have seen him look very angry. He used to walk much
about his fields, especially of a summer morning before the sun was
up. This was after my mother's death. I presume he felt nearer to her
in the fields than in the house. There was a kind of grandeur about
him, I am sure; for I never saw one of his parishioners salute him in
the road, without a look of my father himself passing like a solemn
cloud over the face of the man or woman. For us, we feared and loved
him both at once. I do not remember ever being punished by him, but
Kirsty (of whom I shall have to speak by and by) has told me that he
did punish us when we were very small children. Neither did he teach
us much himself, except on the occasions I am about to mention; and I
cannot say that I learned much from his sermons. These gave entire
satisfaction to those of his parishioners whom I happened to hear
speak of them; but, although I loved the sound of his voice, and liked
to look at his face as he stood up there in the ancient pulpit clad in
his gown and bands, I never cared much about what he said. Of course
it was all right, and a better sermon than any other clergyman
whatever could have preached, but what it was all about was of no
consequence to me. I may as well confess at once that I never had the
least doubt that my father was the best man in the world. Nay, to this
very hour I am of the same opinion, notwithstanding that the son of
the village tailor once gave me a tremendous thrashing for saying so,
on the ground that I was altogether wrong, seeing _his_ father was the
best man in the world--at least I have learned to modify the assertion
only to this extent--that my father was the best man I have ever
The church was a very old one--had seen candles burning, heard the
little bell ringing, and smelt the incense of the old Catholic
service. It was so old, that it seemed settling down again into the
earth, especially on one side, where great buttresses had been built
to keep it up. It leaned against them like a weary old thing that
wanted to go to sleep. It had a short square tower, like so many of
the churches in England; and although there was but one old cracked
bell in it, although there was no organ to give out its glorious
sounds, although there was neither chanting nor responses, I assure my
English readers that the awe and reverence which fell upon me as I
crossed its worn threshold were nowise inferior, as far as I can
judge, to the awe and respect they feel when they enter the more
beautiful churches of their country. There was a hush in it which
demanded a refraining of the foot, a treading softly as upon holy
ground; and the church was inseparably associated with my father.
The pew we sat in was a square one, with a table in the middle of it
for our books. My brother David generally used it for laying his head
upon, that he might go to sleep comfortably. My brother Tom put his
feet on the cross-bar of it, leaned back in his corner--for you see we
had a corner apiece--put his hands in his trousers pockets, and stared
hard at my father--for Tom's corner was well in front of the pulpit.
My brother Allister, whose back was to the pulpit, used to learn the
_paraphrases_ all the time of the sermon. I, happiest of all in my
position, could look up at my father, if I pleased, a little sideways;
or, if I preferred, which I confess I often did, study--a rare sight
in Scotch churches--the figure of an armed knight, carved in stone,
which lay on the top of the tomb of Sir Worm Wymble--at least that is
the nearest I can come to the spelling of the name they gave him. The
tomb was close by the side of the pew, with only a flagged passage
between. It stood in a hollow in the wall, and the knight lay under
the arch of the recess, so silent, so patient, with folded palms, as
if praying for some help which he could not name. From the presence of
this labour of the sculptor came a certain element into the feeling of
the place, which it could not otherwise have possessed: organ and
chant were not altogether needful while that carved knight lay there
with face upturned, as if looking to heaven.
But from gazing at the knight I began to regard the wall about him,
and the arch over him; and from the arch my eye would seek the roof,
and descending, rest on the pillars, or wander about the windows,
searching the building of the place, discovering the points of its
strength, and how it was upheld. So that while my father was talking
of the church as a company of believers, and describing how it was
held together by faith, I was trying to understand how the stone and
lime of the old place was kept from falling asunder, and thus
beginning to follow what has become my profession since; for I am an
But the church has led me away from my father. He always spoke in
rather a low voice, but so earnestly that every eye, as it seemed to
me, but mine and those of two of my brothers, was fixed upon him. I
think, however, that it was in part the fault of certain teaching of
his own, better fitted for our understanding, that we paid so little
heed. Even Tom, with all his staring, knew as little about the sermon
as any of us. But my father did not question us much concerning it; he
did what was far better. On Sunday afternoons, in the warm, peaceful
sunlight of summer, with the honeysuckle filling the air of the little
arbour in which we sat, and his one glass of wine set on the table in
the middle, he would sit for an hour talking away to us in his gentle,
slow, deep voice, telling us story after story out of the New
Testament, and explaining them in a way I have seldom heard equalled.
Or, in the cold winter nights, he would come into the room where I and
my two younger brothers slept--the nursery it was--and, sitting down
with Tom by his side before the fire that burned bright in the frosty
air, would open the great family Bible on the table, turn his face
towards the two beds where we three lay wide awake, and tell us story
after story out of the Old Testament, sometimes reading a few verses,
sometimes turning the bare facts into an expanded and illustrated
narrative of his own, which, in Shakspere fashion, he presented after
the modes and ways of our own country and time. I shall never forget
Joseph in Egypt hearing the pattering of the asses' hoofs in the
street, and throwing up the window, and looking out, and seeing all
his own brothers coming riding towards him; or the grand rush of the
sea waves over the bewildered hosts of the Egyptians. We lay and
listened with all the more enjoyment, that while the fire was burning
so brightly, and the presence of my father filling the room with
safety and peace, the wind was howling outside, and the snow drifting
up against the window. Sometimes I passed into the land of sleep with
his voice in my ears and his love in my heart; perhaps into the land
of visions--once certainly into a dream of the sun and moon and stars
making obeisance to the too-favoured son of Jacob.
My father had a housekeeper, a trusty woman, he considered her. We
thought her _very_ old. I suppose she was about forty. She was not
pleasant, for she was grim-faced and censorious, with a very straight
back, and a very long upper lip. Indeed the distance from her nose to
her mouth was greater than the length of her nose. When I think of her
first, it is always as making some complaint to my father against
us. Perhaps she meant to speak the truth, or rather, perhaps took it
for granted that she always did speak the truth; but certainly she
would exaggerate things, and give them quite another look. The bones
of her story might be true, but she would put a skin over it after her
own fashion, which was not one of mildness and charity. The
consequence was that the older we grew, the more our minds were
alienated from her, and the more we came to regard her as our enemy.
If she really meant to be our friend after the best fashion she knew,
it was at least an uncomely kind of friendship, that showed itself in
constant opposition, fault-finding, and complaint. The real mistake
was that we were boys. There was something in her altogether
antagonistic to the boy-nature. You would have thought that to be a
boy was in her eyes to be something wrong to begin with; that boys
ought never to have been made; that they must always, by their very
nature, be about something amiss. I have occasionally wondered how she
would have behaved to a girl. On reflection, I think a little better;
but the girl would have been worse off, because she could not have
escaped from her as we did. My father would hear her complaints to the
end without putting in a word, except it were to ask her a question,
and when she had finished, would turn again to his book or his sermon,
"Very well, Mrs. Mitchell; I will speak to them about it."
My impression is that he did not believe the half she told him. At all
events, when he had sent for us, he would ask our version of the
affair, and listen to that as he had listened to hers. Then he would
set forth to us where we had been wrong, if we were wrong, and send us
away with an injunction not to provoke Mrs. Mitchell, who couldn't
help being short in her temper, poor thing! Somehow or other we got it
into our heads that the shortness of her temper was mysteriously
associated with the shortness of her nose.
She was saving even to stinginess. She would do her best to provide
what my father liked, but for us she thought almost anything good
enough. She would, for instance, give us the thinnest of milk--we said
she skimmed it three times before she thought it blue enough for us.
My two younger brothers did not mind it so much as I did, for I was
always rather delicate, and if I took a dislike to anything, would
rather go without than eat or drink of it. But I have told you enough
about her to make it plain that she could be no favourite with us; and
enough likewise to serve as a background to my description of Kirsty.
Kirsty was a Highland woman who had the charge of the house in which
the farm servants lived. She was a cheerful, gracious, kind woman--a
woman of God's making, one would say, were it not that, however
mysterious it may look, we cannot deny that he made Mrs. Mitchell too.
It is very puzzling, I confess. I remember once that my youngest
brother Davie, a very little fellow then, for he could not speak
plainly, came running in great distress to Kirsty, crying, "Fee, fee!"
by which he meant to indicate that a flea was rendering his life
miserable. Kirsty at once undressed him and entered on the pursuit.
After a successful search, while she was putting on his garments
again, little Davie, who had been looking very solemn and thoughtful
for some time, said, not in a questioning, but in a concluding tone--
"God didn't make the fees, Kirsty!"
"Oh yes, Davie! God made everything. God did make the fleas," said
Davie was silent for a while. Then he opened his mouth and spake like
a discontented prophet of old:
"Why doesn't he give them something else to eat, then?"
"You must ask himself that," said Kirsty, with a wisdom I have since
learned to comprehend, though I remember it shocked me a little at the
All this set me thinking. Before the dressing of little Davie was
over, I had _my_ question to put to Kirsty. It was, in fact, the same
question, only with a more important object in the eye of it.
"_Then_ I suppose God made Mrs. Mitchell, as well as you and the rest
of us, Kirsty?" I said.
"Certainly, Ranald," returned Kirsty.
"Well, I wish he hadn't," was my remark, in which I only imitated my
baby brother, who was always much cleverer than I.
"Oh! she's not a bad sort," said Kirsty; "though I must say, if I was
her, I would try to be a little more agreeable."
To return to Kirsty: she was our constant resort. The farmhouse was a
furlong or so from the manse, but with the blood pouring from a cut
finger, the feet would of themselves devour that furlong rather than
apply to Mrs. Mitchell. Oh! she was dear, and good, and kind, our
In person she was short and slender, with keen blue eyes and dark
hair; an uncommonly small foot, which she claimed for all Highland
folk; a light step, a sweet voice, and a most bounteous hand--but
there I come into the moral nature of her, for it is the mind that
makes the hand bountiful. For her face, I think that was rather queer,
but in truth I can hardly tell, so entirely was it the sign of good to
me and my brothers; in short, I loved her so much that I do not know
now, even as I did not care then, whether she was nice-looking or not.
She was quite as old as Mrs. Mitchell, but we never thought of _her_
being old. She was our refuge in all time of trouble and necessity. It
was she who gave us something to eat as often and as much as we
wanted. She used to say it was no cheating of the minister to feed
the minister's boys.
And then her stories! There was nothing like them in all that
countryside. It was rather a dreary country in outward aspect, having
many bleak moorland hills, that lay about like slow-stiffened waves,
of no great height but of much desolation; and as far as the
imagination was concerned, it would seem that the minds of former
generations had been as bleak as the country, they had left such small
store of legends of any sort. But Kirsty had come from a region where
the hills were hills indeed--hills with mighty skeletons of stone
inside them; hills that looked as if they had been heaped over huge
monsters which were ever trying to get up--a country where every
cliff, and rock, and well had its story--and Kirsty's head was full of
such. It was delight indeed to sit by her fire and listen to them.
That would be after the men had had their supper, early of a winter
night, and had gone, two of them to the village, and the other to
attend to the horses. Then we and the herd, as we called the boy who
attended to the cattle, whose work was over for the night, would sit
by the fire, and Kirsty would tell us stories, and we were in our
I Begin Life
I began life, and that after no pleasant fashion, as near as I can
guess, about the age of six years. One glorious morning in early
summer I found myself led by the ungentle hand of Mrs. Mitchell
towards a little school on the outside of the village, kept by an old
woman called Mrs. Shand. In an English village I think she would have
been called Dame Shand: we called her Luckie Shand. Half dragged along
the road by Mrs. Mitchell, from whose rough grasp I attempted in vain
to extricate my hand, I looked around at the shining fields and up at
the blue sky, where a lark was singing as if he had just found out
that he could sing, with something like the despair of a man going to
the gallows and bidding farewell to the world. We had to cross a
little stream, and when we reached the middle of the foot-bridge, I
tugged yet again at my imprisoned hand, with a half-formed intention
of throwing myself into the brook. But my efforts were still
unavailing. Over a half-mile or so, rendered weary by unwillingness,
I was led to the cottage door--no such cottage as some of my readers
will picture, with roses and honeysuckle hiding its walls, but a
dreary little house with nothing green to cover the brown stones of
which it was built, and having an open ditch in front of it with a
stone slab over it for a bridge. Did I say there was nothing on the
walls? This morning there was the loveliest sunshine, and that I was
going to leave behind. It was very bitter, especially as I had
expected to go with my elder brother to spend the day at a
Mrs. Mitchell opened the door, and led me in. It was an awful
experience. Dame Shand stood at her table ironing. She was as tall as
Mrs. Mitchell, and that was enough to prejudice me against her at
once. She wore a close-fitting widow's cap, with a black ribbon round
it. Her hair was grey, and her face was as grey as her hair, and her
skin was gathered in wrinkles about her mouth, where they twitched and
twitched, as if she were constantly meditating something unpleasant.
She looked up inquiringly.
"I've brought you a new scholar," said Mrs. Mitchell.
"Well. Very well," said the dame, in a dubious tone. "I hope he's a
good boy, for he must be good if he comes here."
"Well, he's just middling. His father spares the rod, Mrs. Shand, and
we know what comes of that."
They went on with their talk, which, as far as I can recall it, was
complimentary to none but the two women themselves. Meantime I was
making what observations my terror would allow. About a dozen children
were seated on forms along the walls, looking over the tops of their
spelling-books at the newcomer. In the farther corner two were kicking
at each other as opportunity offered, looking very angry, but not
daring to cry. My next discovery was terribly disconcerting. Some
movement drew my eyes to the floor; there I saw a boy of my own age on
all-fours, fastened by a string to a leg of the table at which the
dame was ironing, while--horrible to relate!--a dog, not very big but
very ugly, and big enough to be frightened at, lay under the table
watching him. I gazed in utter dismay.
"Ah, you may look!" said the dame. "If you're not a good boy, that is
how you shall be served. The dog shall have you to look after."
I trembled, and was speechless. After some further confabulation,
Mrs. Mitchell took her leave, saying--
"I'll come back for him at one o'clock, and if I don't come, just keep
him till I do come."
The dame accompanied her to the door, and then I discovered that she
was lame, and hobbled very much. A resolution arose full-formed in my
I sat down on the form near the door, and kept very quiet. Had it not
been for the intention I cherished, I am sure I should have cried.
When the dame returned, she resumed her box-iron, in which the heater
went rattling about, as, standing on one leg--the other was so much
shorter--she moved it to and fro over the garment on the table. Then
she called me to her by name in a would-be pompous manner. I obeyed,
"Can you say your letters?" she asked.
Now, although I could not read, I could repeat the alphabet; how I had
learned it I do not know. I did repeat it.
"How many questions of your catechism can you say?" she asked next.
Not knowing with certainty what she meant, I was silent.
"No sulking!" said the dame; and opening a drawer in the table, she
took out a catechism. Turning back the cover she put it in my hand,
and told me to learn the first question. She had not even inquired
whether I could read. I took the catechism, and stood as before.
"Go to your seat," she said.
I obeyed, and with the book before me pondered my plan.
Everything depended on whether I could open the door before she could
reach me. Once out of the house, I was sure of running faster than she
could follow. And soon I had my first experience of how those are
helped who will help themselves.
The ironing of course required a fire to make the irons hot, and as
the morning went on, the sunshine on the walls, conspiring with the
fire on the hearth, made the place too hot for the comfort of the old
dame. She went and set the door wide open. I was instantly on the
alert, watching for an opportunity. One soon occurred.
A class of some five or six was reading, if reading it could be
called, out of the Bible. At length it came to the turn of one who
blundered dreadfully. It was the same boy who had been tied under the
table, but he had been released for his lesson. The dame hobbled to
him, and found he had his book upside down; whereupon she turned in
wrath to the table, and took from the drawer a long leather strap,
with which she proceeded to chastise him. As his first cry reached my
ears I was halfway to the door. On the threshold I stumbled and fell.
"The new boy's running away!" shrieked some little sycophant inside.
I heard with horror, but I was up and off in a moment. I had not,
however, got many yards from the cottage before I heard the voice of
the dame screaming after me to return. I took no heed--only sped the
faster. But what was my horror to find her command enforced by the
pursuing bark of her prime minister. This paralysed me. I turned, and
there was the fiendish-looking dog close on my heels. I could run no
longer. For one moment I felt as if I should sink to the earth for
sheer terror. The next moment a wholesome rage sent the blood to my
brain. From abject cowardice to wild attack--I cannot call it
courage--was the change of an instant. I rushed towards the little
wretch. I did not know how to fight him, but in desperation I threw
myself upon him, and dug my nails into him. They had fortunately found
their way to his eyes. He was the veriest coward of his species. He
yelped and howled, and struggling from my grasp ran with his tail
merged in his person back to his mistress, who was hobbling after me.
But with the renewed strength of triumph I turned again for home, and
ran as I had never run before. When or where the dame gave in, I do
not know; I never turned my head until I laid it on Kirsty's bosom,
and there I burst out sobbing and crying. It was all the utterance I
As soon as Kirsty had succeeded in calming me, I told her the whole
story. She said very little, but I could see she was very angry. No
doubt she was pondering what could be done. She got me some milk--half
cream I do believe, it was so nice--and some oatcake, and went on with
While I ate I reflected that any moment Mrs. Mitchell might appear to
drag me back in disgrace to that horrible den. I knew that Kirsty's
authority was not equal to hers, and that she would be compelled to
give me up. So I watched an opportunity to escape once more and hide
myself, so that Kirsty might be able to say she did not know where I
When I had finished, and Kirsty had left the kitchen for a moment, I
sped noiselessly to the door, and looked out into the farmyard. There
was no one to be seen. Dark and brown and cool the door of the barn
stood open, as if inviting me to shelter and safety; for I knew that
in the darkest end of it lay a great heap of oat-straw. I sped across
the intervening sunshine into the darkness, and began burrowing in the
straw like a wild animal, drawing out handfuls and laying them
carefully aside, so that no disorder should betray my retreat. When I
had made a hole large enough to hold me, I got in, but kept drawing
out the straw behind me, and filling the hole in front. This I
continued until I had not only stopped up the entrance, but placed a
good thickness of straw between me and the outside. By the time I had
burrowed as far as I thought necessary, I was tired, and lay down at
full length in my hole, delighting in such a sense of safety as I had
never before experienced. I was soon fast asleep.
I woke, and creeping out of my lair, and peeping from the door of the
barn, which looked into the cornyard, found that the sun was going
down. I had already discovered that I was getting hungry. I went out
at the other door into the close or farmyard, and ran across to the
house. No one was there. Something moved me to climb on the form and
look out of a little window, from which I could see the manse and the
road from it. To my dismay, there was Mrs. Mitchell coming towards the
farm. I possessed my wits sufficiently to run first to Kirsty's press
and secure a good supply of oatcake, with which I then sped like a
hunted hare to her form. I had soon drawn the stopper of straw into
the mouth of the hole, where, hearing no one approach, I began to eat
my oatcake, and fell asleep again before I had finished.
And as I slept I dreamed my dream. The sun was looking very grave, and
the moon reflected his concern. They were not satisfied with me. At
length the sun shook his head; that is, his whole self oscillated on
an axis, and the moon thereupon shook herself in response. Then they
nodded to each other as much as to say, "That is entirely my own
opinion." At last they began to talk; not as men converse, but both at
once, yet each listening while each spoke. I heard no word, but their
lips moved most busily; their eyebrows went up and down; their eyelids
winked and winked, and their cheeks puckered and relaxed incessantly.
There was an absolute storm of expression upon their faces; their very
noses twisted and curled. It seemed as if, in the agony of their talk,
their countenances would go to pieces. For the stars, they darted
about hither and thither, gathered into groups, dispersed, and formed
new groups, and having no faces yet, but being a sort of celestial
tadpoles, indicated by their motions alone that they took an active
interest in the questions agitating their parents. Some of them kept
darting up and down the ladder of rays, like phosphorescent sparks in
the sea foam.
I could bear it no longer, and awoke. I was in darkness, but not in my
own bed. When I proceeded to turn, I found myself hemmed in on all
sides. I could not stretch my arms, and there was hardly room for my
body between my feet and my head. I was dreadfully frightened at
first, and felt as if I were being slowly stifled. As my brain awoke,
I recalled the horrible school, the horrible schoolmistress, and the
most horrible dog, over whose defeat, however, I rejoiced with the
pride of a dragon-slayer. Next I thought it would be well to look
abroad and reconnoitre once more. I drew away the straw from the
entrance to my lair; but what was my dismay to find that even when my
hand went out into space no light came through the opening. What could
it mean? Surely I had not grown blind while I lay asleep. Hurriedly I
shot out the remainder of the stopper of straw, and crept from the
hole. In the great barn there was but the dullest glimmer of light; I
had almost said the clumsiest reduction of darkness. I tumbled at one
of the doors rather than ran to it. I found it fast, but this one I
knew was fastened on the inside by a wooden bolt or bar, which I could
draw back. The open door revealed the dark night. Before me was the
cornyard, as we called it, full of ricks. Huge and very positive
although dim, they rose betwixt me and the sky. Between their tops I
saw only stars and darkness. I turned and looked back into the barn.
It appeared a horrible cave filled with darkness. I remembered there
were rats in it. I dared not enter it again, even to go out at the
opposite door: I forgot how soundly and peacefully I had slept in it.
I stepped out into the night with the grass of the corn-yard under my
feet, the awful vault of heaven over my head, and those shadowy ricks
around me. It was a relief to lay my hand on one of them, and feel
that it was solid. I half groped my way through them, and got out into
the open field, by creeping through between the stems of what had once
been a hawthorn hedge, but had in the course of a hundred years grown
into the grimmest, largest, most grotesque trees I have ever seen of
the kind. I had always been a little afraid of them, even in the
daytime, but they did me no hurt, and I stood in the vast hall of the
silent night--alone: there lay the awfulness of it. I had never before
known what the night was. The real sting of its fear lay in this--that
there was nobody else in it. Everybody besides me was asleep all over
the world, and had abandoned me to my fate, whatever might come out of
the darkness to seize me. When I got round the edge of the stone wall,
which on another side bounded the corn-yard, there was the
moon--crescent, as I saw her in my dream, but low down towards the
horizon, and lying almost upon her rounded back. She looked very
disconsolate and dim. Even she would take no heed of me, abandoned
child! The stars were high up, away in the heavens. They did not look
like the children of the sun and moon at all, and _they_ took no heed
of me. Yet there was a grandeur in my desolation that would have
elevated my heart but for the fear. If I had had one living creature
nigh me--if only the stupid calf, whose dull sleepy low startled me so
dreadfully as I stood staring about me! It was not dark out here in
the open field, for at this season of the year it is not dark there
all night long, when the sky is unclouded. Away in the north was the
Great Bear. I knew that constellation, for by it one of the men had
taught me to find the pole-star. Nearly under it was the light of the
sun, creeping round by the north towards the spot in the east where he
would rise again. But I learned only afterwards to understand this. I
gazed at that pale faded light, and all at once I remembered that God
was near me. But I did not know what God is then as I know now, and
when I thought about him then, which was neither much nor often, my
idea of him was not like him; it was merely a confused mixture of
other people's fancies about him and my own. I had not learned how
beautiful God is; I had only learned that he is strong. I had been
told that he was angry with those that did wrong; I had not understood
that he loved them all the time, although he was displeased with them,
and must punish them to make them good. When I thought of him now in
the silent starry night, a yet greater terror seized me, and I ran
stumbling over the uneven field.
Does my reader wonder whither I fled? Whither should I fly but home?
True, Mrs. Mitchell was there, but there was another there as well.
Even Kirsty would not do in this terror. Home was the only refuge, for
my father was there. I sped for the manse.
But as I approached it a new apprehension laid hold of my trembling
heart. I was not sure, but I thought the door was always locked at
night. I drew nearer. The place of possible refuge rose before me. I
stood on the grass-plot in front of it. There was no light in its
eyes. Its mouth was closed. It was silent as one of the ricks. Above
it shone the speechless stars. Nothing was alive. Nothing would
speak. I went up the few rough-hewn granite steps that led to the
door. I laid my hand on the handle, and gently turned it. Joy of joys!
the door opened. I entered the hall. Ah! it was more silent than the
night. No footsteps echoed; no voices were there. I closed the door
behind me, and, almost sick with the misery of a being where no other
being was to comfort it, I groped my way to my father's room. When I
once had my hand on his door, the warm tide of courage began again to
flow from my heart. I opened this door too very quietly, for was not
the dragon asleep down below?
"Papa! papa!" I cried, in an eager whisper. "Are you awake, papa?"
No voice came in reply, and the place was yet more silent than the
night or the hall. He must be asleep. I was afraid to call louder. I
crept nearer to the bed. I stretched out my hands to feel for him. He
must be at the farther side. I climbed up on the bed. I felt all
across it. Utter desertion seized my soul--my father was not there!
Was it a horrible dream? Should I ever awake? My heart sank totally
within me. I could bear no more. I fell down on the bed weeping
bitterly, and wept myself asleep.
Years after, when I was a young man, I read Jean Paul's terrible dream
that there was no God, and the desolation of this night was my key to
Once more I awoke to a sense of misery, and stretched out my arms,
crying, "Papa! papa!" The same moment I found my father's arms around
me; he folded me close to him, and said--
"Hush, Ranald, my boy! Here I am! You are quite safe."
I nestled as close to him as I could go, and wept for blessedness.
"Oh, papa!" I sobbed, "I thought I had lost you."
"And I thought I had lost you, my boy. Tell me all about it."
Between my narrative and my replies to his questionings he had soon
gathered the whole story, and I in my turn learned the dismay of the
household when I did not appear. Kirsty told what she knew. They
searched everywhere, but could not find me; and great as my misery had
been, my father's had been greater than mine. While I stood forsaken
and desolate in the field, they had been searching along the banks of
the river. But the herd had had an idea, and although they had already
searched the barn and every place they could think of, he left them
and ran back for a further search about the farm. Guided by the
scattered straw, he soon came upon my deserted lair, and sped back to
the riverside with the news, when my father returned, and after
failing to find me in my own bed, to his infinite relief found me fast
asleep on his; so fast, that he undressed me and laid me in the bed
without my once opening my eyes--the more strange, as I had already
slept so long. But sorrow is very sleepy.
Having thus felt the awfulness and majesty of the heavens at night, it
was a very long time before I again dreamed my childish dream.
Mrs. Mitchell is Defeated
After this talk with my father I fell into a sleep of perfect
contentment, and never thought of what might be on the morrow till the
morrow came. Then I grew aware of the danger I was in of being carried
off once more to school. Indeed, except my father interfered, the
thing was almost inevitable. I thought he would protect me, but I had
no assurance. He was gone again, for, as I have mentioned already, he
was given to going out early in the mornings. It was not early now,
however; I had slept much longer than usual. I got up at once,
intending to find him; but, to my horror, before I was half dressed,
my enemy, Mrs. Mitchell, came into the room, looking triumphant and
"I'm glad to see you're getting up," she said; "it's nearly
The tone, and the emphasis she laid on the word _school_, would have
sufficed to reveal the state of her mind, even if her eyes had not
been fierce with suppressed indignation.
"I haven't had my porridge," I said.
"Your porridge is waiting you--as cold as a stone," she answered. "If
boys will lie in bed so late, what can they expect?"
"Nothing from you," I muttered, with more hardihood than I had yet
"What's that you're saying?" she asked angrily.
I was silent.
"Make haste," she went on, "and don't keep me waiting all day."
"You needn't wait, Mrs. Mitchell. I am dressing as fast as I can. Is
papa in his study yet?"
"No. And you needn't think to see him. He's angry enough with you,
She little knew what had passed between my father and me already. She
could not imagine what a talk we had had.
"You needn't think to run away as you did yesterday. I know all about
it Mrs. Shand told me all about it I shouldn't wonder if your papa's
gone to see her now, and tell her how sorry he is you were so
"I'm not going, to school."
"We'll see about that"
"I tell you I won't go."
"And I tell you we'll see about it"
"I won't go till I've seen papa. If he says I'm to go, I will of
course; but I won't go for you."
"You _will_, and you _won't_!" she repeated, standing staring at me,
as I leisurely, but with hands trembling partly with fear, partly with
rage, was fastening my nether garments to my waistcoat. "That's all
very fine, but I know something a good deal finer. Now wash your
"I won't, so long as you stand there," I said, and sat down on the
floor. She advanced towards me.
"If you touch me, I'll scream," I cried.
She stopped, thought for a moment, and bounced out of the room. But I
heard her turn the key of the door.
I proceeded with my dressing as fast as I could then; and the moment I
was ready, opened the window, which was only a few feet from the
ground, scrambled out, and dropped. I hurt myself a little, but not
much, and fled for the harbour of Kirsty's arms. But as I turned the
corner of the house I ran right into Mrs. Mitchell's, who received me
with no soft embrace. In fact I was rather severely scratched with
a. pin in the bosom of her dress.
"There! that serves you right," she cried. "That's a judgment on you
for trying to run away again. After all the trouble you gave us
yesterday too! You are a bad boy."
"Why am I a bad boy?" I retorted.
"It's bad not to do what you are told."
"I will do what my papa tells me."
"Your papa! There are more people than your papa in the world."
"I'm to be a bad boy if I don't do what anybody like you chooses to
tell me, am I?"
"None of your impudence!"
This was accompanied by a box on the ear. She was now dragging me into
the kitchen. There she set my porridge before me, which I declined to
"Well, if you won't eat good food, you shall go to school without it."
"I tell you I won't go to school."
She caught me up in her arms. She was very strong, and I could not
prevent her carrying me out of the house. If I had been the bad boy
she said I was, I could by biting and scratching have soon compelled
her to set me down; but I felt that I must not do that, for then I
should be ashamed before my father. I therefore yielded for the time,
and fell to planning. Nor was I long in coming to a resolution. I drew
the pin that had scratched me from her dress. I believed she would not
carry me very far; but if she did not set me down soon, I resolved to
make her glad to do so. Further I resolved, that when we came to the
foot-bridge, which had but one rail to it, I would run the pin into
her and make her let me go, when I would instantly throw myself into
the river, for I would run the risk of being drowned rather than go to
that school. Were all my griefs of yesterday, overcome and on the
point of being forgotten, to be frustrated in this fashion? My whole
blood was boiling. I was convinced my father did not want me to go. He
could not have been so kind to me during the night, and then send me
to such a place in the morning. But happily for the general peace,
things did not arrive at such a desperate pass. Before we were out of
the gate, my heart leaped with joy, for I heard my father calling,
"Mrs. Mitchell! Mrs. Mitchell!" I looked round, and seeing him coming
after us with his long slow strides, I fell to struggling so violently
in the strength of hope that she was glad to set me down. I broke from
her, ran to my father, and burst out crying.
"Papa! papa!" I sobbed, "don't send me to that horrid school. I can
learn to read without that old woman to teach me."
"Really, Mrs. Mitchell," said my father, taking me by the hand and
leading me towards her, where she stood visibly flaming with rage and
annoyance, "really, Mrs. Mitchell, you are taking too much upon you! I
never said the child was to go to that woman's school. In fact I don't
approve of what I hear of her, and I have thought of consulting some
of my brethren in the presbytery on the matter before taking steps
myself. I won't have the young people in my parish oppressed in such a
fashion. Terrified with dogs too! It is shameful."
"She's a very decent woman, Mistress Shand," said the housekeeper.
"I don't dispute her decency, Mrs. Mitchell; but I doubt very much
whether she is fit to have the charge of children; and as she is a
friend of yours, you will be doing her a kindness to give her a hint
to that effect. It _may_ save the necessity for my taking further and
more unpleasant steps."
"Indeed, sir, by your leave, it would be hard lines to take the bread
out of the mouth of a lone widow woman, and bring her upon the parish
with a bad name to boot. She's supported herself for years with her
school, and been a trouble to nobody."
"Except the lambs of the flock, Mrs. Mitchell.--I like you for
standing up for your friend; but is a woman, because she is lone and a
widow, to make a Moloch of herself, and have the children sacrificed
to her in that way? It's enough to make idiots of some of them. She
had better see to it. You tell her that--from me, if you like. And
don't you meddle with school affairs. I'll take my young men," he
added with a smile, "to school when I see fit."
"I'm sure, sir," said Mrs. Mitchell, putting her blue striped apron to
her eyes, "I asked your opinion before I took him."
"I believe I did say something about its being time he were able to
read, but I recollect nothing more.--You must have misunderstood me,"
he added, willing to ease her descent to the valley of her
She walked away without another word, sniffing the air as she went,
and carrying her hands folded under her apron. From that hour I
believe she hated me.
My father looked after her with a smile, and then looked down on me,
"She's short in the temper, poor woman! and we mustn't provoke her."
I was too well satisfied to urge my victory by further complaint. I
could afford to let well alone, for I had been delivered as from the
fiery furnace, and the earth and the sky were laughing around me. Oh!
what a sunshine filled the world! How glad the larks, which are the
praisers amongst the birds, were that blessed morning! The demon of
oppression had hidden her head ashamed, and fled to her den!
A New Schoolmistress
"But, Ranald," my father continued, "what are we to do about the
reading? I fear I have let you go too long. I didn't want to make
learning a burden to you, and I don't approve of children learning to
read too soon; but really, at your age, you know, it is time you were
beginning. I have time to teach you some things, but I can't teach you
everything. I have got to read a great deal and think a great deal,
and go about my parish a good deal. And your brother Tom has heavy
lessons to learn at school, and I have to help him. So what's to be
done, Ranald, my boy? You can't go to the parish school before you've
learned your letters."
"There's Kirsty, papa," I suggested.
"Yes; there's Kirsty," he returned with a sly smile. "Kirsty can do
everything, can't she?"
"She can speak Gaelic," I said with a tone of triumph, bringing her
rarest accomplishment to the forefront.
"I wish you could speak Gaelic," said my father, thinking of his wife,
I believe, whose mother tongue it was. "But that is not what you want
most to learn. Do you think Kirsty could teach you to read English?"
"Yes, I do."
My father again meditated.
"Let us go and ask her," he said at length, taking my hand.
I capered with delight, nor ceased my capering till we stood on
Kirsty's earthen floor. I think I see her now, dusting one of her deal
chairs, as white as soap and sand could make it, for the minister to
sit on. She never called him _the master_, but always _the minister_.
She was a great favourite with my father, and he always behaved as a
visitor in her house.
"Well, Kirsty," he said, after the first salutations were over, "have
you any objection to turn schoolmistress?"
"I should make a poor hand at that," she answered, with a smile to me
which showed she guessed what my father wanted. "But if it were to
teach Master Ranald there, I should like dearly to try what I could
She never omitted the _Master_ to our names; Mrs. Mitchell by no
chance prefixed it. The natural manners of the Celt and Saxon are
almost diametrically opposed in Scotland. And had Kirsty's speech been
in the coarse dialect of Mrs. Mitchell, I am confident my father would
not have allowed her to teach me. But Kirsty did not speak a word of
Scotch, and although her English was a little broken and odd, being
formed somewhat after Gaelic idioms, her tone was pure and her phrases
were refined. The matter was very speedily settled between them.
"And if you want to beat him, Kirsty, you can beat him in Gaelic, and
then he won't feel it," said my father, trying after a joke, which was
no common occurrence with him, whereupon Kirsty and I laughed in great
The fact was, Kirsty had come to the manse with my mother, and my
father was attached to her for the sake of his wife as well as for her
own, and Kirsty would have died for the minister or any one of his
boys. All the devotion a Highland woman has for the chief of her clan,
Kirsty had for my father, not to mention the reverence due to the
After a little chat about the cows and the calves, my father rose,
"Then I'll just make him over to you, Kirsty. Do you think you can
manage without letting it interfere with your work, though?"
"Oh yes, sir--well that! I shall soon have him reading to me while I'm
busy about. If he doesn't know the word, he can spell it, and then I
shall know it--at least if it's not longer than Hawkie's tail."
Hawkie was a fine milker, with a bad temper, and a comically short
tail. It had got chopped off by some accident when she was a calf.
"There's something else short about Hawkie--isn't there, Kirsty?" said
"And Mrs. Mitchell," I suggested, thinking to help Kirsty to my
"Come, come, young gentleman! We don't want your remarks," said my
"Why, papa, you told me so yourself, just before we came up."
"Yes, I did; but I did not mean you to repeat it. What if Kirsty were
to go and tell Mrs. Mitchell?"
Kirsty made no attempt at protestation. She knew well enough that my
father knew there was no danger. She only laughed, and I, seeing
Kirsty satisfied, was satisfied also, and joined in the laugh.
The result was that before many weeks were over, Allister and wee
Davie were Kirsty's pupils also, Allister learning to read, and wee
Davie to sit still, which was the hardest task within his capacity.
They were free to come or keep away, but not to go: if they did come,
Kirsty insisted on their staying out the lesson. It soon became a
regular thing. Every morning in summer we might be seen perched on a
form, under one of the tiny windows, in that delicious brown light
which you seldom find but in an old clay-floored cottage. In a
fir-wood I think you have it; and I have seen it in an old castle; but
best of all in the house of mourning in an Arab cemetery. In the
winter, we seated ourselves round the fire--as near it as Kirsty's
cooking operations, which were simple enough, admitted. It was
delightful to us boys, and would have been amusing to anyone, to see
how Kirsty behaved when Mrs. Mitchell found occasion to pay her a
visit during lesson hours. She knew her step and darted to the door.
Not once did she permit her to enter. She was like a hen with her
"No, you'll not come in just now, Mrs. Mitchell," she would say, as
the housekeeper attempted to pass. "You know we're busy."
"I want to hear how they're getting on."
"You can try them at home," Kirsty would answer.
We always laughed at the idea of our reading to her. Once I believe
she heard the laugh, for she instantly walked away, and I do not
remember that she ever came again.
We Learn Other Things
We were more than ever at the farm now. During the summer, from the
time we got up till the time we went to bed, we seldom approached the
manse. I have heard it hinted that my father neglected us. But that
can hardly be, seeing that then his word was law to us, and now I
regard his memory as the symbol of the love unspeakable. My elder
brother Tom always had his meals with him, and sat at his lessons in
the study. But my father did not mind the younger ones running wild,
so long as there was a Kirsty for them to run to; and indeed the men
also were not only friendly to us, but careful over us. No doubt we
were rather savage, very different in our appearance from town-bred
children, who are washed and dressed every time they go out for a
walk: that we should have considered not merely a hardship, but an
indignity. To be free was all our notion of a perfect existence. But
my father's rebuke was awful indeed, if he found even the youngest
guilty of untruth, or cruelty, or injustice. At all kinds of
escapades, not involving disobedience, he smiled, except indeed there
were too much danger, when he would warn and limit.
A town boy may wonder what we could find to amuse us all day long; but
the fact is almost everything was an amusement, seeing that when we
could not take a natural share in what was going on, we generally
managed to invent some collateral employment fictitiously related to
it. But he must not think of our farm as at all like some great farm
he may happen to know in England; for there was nothing done by
machinery on the place. There may be great pleasure in watching
machine-operations, but surely none to equal the pleasure we had. If
there had been a steam engine to plough my father's fields, how could
we have ridden home on its back in the evening? To ride the horses
home from the plough was a triumph. Had there been a thrashing-
machine, could its pleasures have been comparable to that of lying in
the straw and watching the grain dance from the sheaves under the
skilful flails of the two strong men who belaboured them? There was a
winnowing-machine, but quite a tame one, for its wheel I could drive
myself--the handle now high as my head, now low as my knee--and watch
at the same time the storm of chaff driven like drifting snowflakes
from its wide mouth. Meantime the oat-grain was flowing in a silent
slow stream from the shelving hole in the other side, and the wind,
rushing through the opposite doors, aided the winnower by catching at
the expelled chaff, and carrying it yet farther apart. I think I see
old Eppie now, filling her sack with what the wind blew her; not with
the grain: Eppie did not covet that; she only wanted her bed filled
with fresh springy chaff, on which she would sleep as sound as her
rheumatism would let her, and as warm and dry and comfortable as any
duchess in the land that happened to have the rheumatism too. For
comfort is inside more than outside; and eider down, delicious as it
is, has less to do with it than some people fancy. How I wish all the
poor people in the great cities could have good chaff beds to lie
upon! Let me see: what more machines are there now? More than I can
tell. I saw one going in the fields the other day, at the use of which
I could only guess. Strange, wild-looking, mad-like machines, as the
Scotch would call them, are growling and snapping, and clinking and
clattering over our fields, so that it seems to an old boy as if all
the sweet poetic twilight of things were vanishing from the country;
but he reminds himself that God is not going to sleep, for, as one of
the greatest poets that ever lived says, _he slumbereth not nor
sleepeth_; and the children of the earth are his, and he will see that
their imaginations and feelings have food enough and to spare. It is
his business this--not ours. So the work must be done as well as it
can. Then, indeed, there will be no fear of the poetry.
I have just alluded to the pleasure of riding the horses, that is, the
work-horses: upon them Allister and I began to ride, as far as I can
remember, this same summer--not from the plough, for the ploughing was
in the end of the year and the spring. First of all we were allowed to
take them at watering-time, watched by one of the men, from the stable
to the long trough that stood under the pump. There, going hurriedly
and stopping suddenly, they would drop head and neck and shoulders
like a certain toy-bird, causing the young riders a vague fear of
falling over the height no longer defended by the uplifted crest; and
then drink and drink till the riders' legs felt the horses' bodies
swelling under them; then up and away with quick refreshed stride or
trot towards the paradise of their stalls. But for us came first the
somewhat fearful pass of the stable door, for they never stopped, like
better educated horses, to let their riders dismount, but walked right
in, and there was just room, by stooping low, to clear the top of the
door. As we improved in equitation, we would go afield, to ride them
home from the pasture, where they were fastened by chains to short
stakes of iron driven into the earth. There was more of adventure
here, for not only was the ride longer, but the horses were more
frisky, and would sometimes set off at the gallop. Then the chief
danger was again the door, lest they should dash in, and knock knees
against posts and heads against lintels, for we had only halters to
hold them with. But after I had once been thrown from back to neck,
and from neck to ground in a clumsy but wild gallop extemporized by
Dobbin, I was raised to the dignity of a bridle, which I always
carried with me when we went to fetch them. It was my father's express
desire that until we could sit well on the bare back we should not be
allowed a saddle. It was a whole year before I was permitted to mount
his little black riding mare, called Missy. She was old, it is
true--nobody quite knew how old she was--but if she felt a light
weight on her back, either the spirit of youth was contagious, or she
fancied herself as young as when she thought nothing of twelve stone,
and would dart off like the wind. In after years I got so found of
her, that I would stand by her side flacking the flies from her as she
grazed; and when I tired of that, would clamber upon her back, and lie
there reading my book, while she plucked on and ground and mashed away
at the grass as if nobody were near her.
Then there was the choice, if nothing else were found more attractive,
of going to the field where the cattle were grazing. Oh! the rich hot
summer afternoons among the grass and the clover, the little
lamb-daisies, and the big horse-daisies, with the cattle feeding
solemnly, but one and another straying now to the corn, now to the
turnips, and recalled by stern shouts, or, if that were unavailing, by
vigorous pursuit and even blows! If I had been able to think of a
mother at home, I should have been perfectly happy. Not that I missed
her then; I had lost her too young for that. I mean that the memory of
the time wants but that to render it perfect in bliss. Even in the
cold days of spring, when, after being shut up all the winter, the
cattle were allowed to revel again in the springing grass and the
venturesome daisies, there was pleasure enough in the company and
devices of the cowherd, a freckle-faced, white-haired, weak-eyed boy
of ten, named--I forget his real name: we always called him Turkey,
because his nose was the colour of a turkey's egg. Who but Turkey knew
mushrooms from toadstools? Who but Turkey could detect earth-nuts--and
that with the certainty of a truffle-hunting dog? Who but Turkey knew
the note and the form and the nest and the eggs of every bird in the
country? Who but Turkey, with his little whip and its lash of brass
wire, would encounter the angriest bull in Christendom, provided he
carried, like the bulls of Scotland, his most sensitive part, the
nose, foremost? In our eyes Turkey was a hero. Who but Turkey could
discover the nests of hens whose maternal anxiety had eluded the
_finesse_ of Kirsty? and who so well as he could roast the egg with
which she always rewarded such a discovery? Words are feeble before
the delight we experienced on such an occasion, when Turkey,
proceeding to light a fire against one of the earthen walls which
divided the fields, would send us abroad to gather sticks and straws
and whatever outcast combustibles we could find, of which there was a
great scarcity, there being no woods or hedges within reach. Who like
Turkey could rob a wild bee's nest? And who could be more just than he
in distributing the luscious prize? In fine, his accomplishments were
innumerable. Short of flying, we believed him capable of everything
What rendered him yet dearer to us, was that there was enmity between
him and Mrs. Mitchell. It came about in this way. Although a good
milker, and therefore of necessity a good feeder, Hawkie was yet upon
temptation subject to the inroads of an unnatural appetite. When she
found a piece of an old shoe in the field, she would, if not compelled
to drop the delicious mouthful, go on, the whole morning or afternoon,
in the impossibility of a final deglutition, chewing and chewing at
the savoury morsel. Should this have happened, it was in vain for
Turkey to hope escape from the discovery of his inattention, for the
milk-pail would that same evening or next morning reveal the fact to
Kirsty's watchful eyes. But fortunately for us, in so far as it was
well to have an ally against our only enemy, Hawkie's morbid craving
was not confined to old shoes. One day when the cattle were feeding
close by the manse, she found on the holly-hedge which surrounded it,
Mrs. Mitchell's best cap, laid out to bleach in the sun. It was a
tempting morsel--more susceptible of mastication than shoe-leather.
Mrs. Mitchell, who had gone for another freight of the linen with
which she was sprinkling the hedge, arrived only in time to see the
end of one of its long strings gradually disappearing into Hawkie's
mouth on its way after the rest of the cap, which had gone the length
of the string farther. With a wild cry of despair she flew at Hawkie,
so intent on the stolen delicacy as to be more open to a surprise than
usual, and laying hold of the string, drew from her throat the
deplorable mass of pulp to which she had reduced the valued gaud. The
same moment Turkey, who had come running at her cry, received full in
his face the slimy and sloppy extract. Nor was this all, for Mrs.
Mitchell flew at him in her fury, and with an outburst of abuse boxed
his ears soundly, before he could recover his senses sufficiently to
run for it. The degradation of this treatment had converted Turkey
into an enemy before ever he knew that we also had good grounds for
disliking her. His opinion concerning her was freely expressed to us
if to no one else, generally in the same terms. He said she was as bad
as she was ugly, and always spoke of her as _the old witch_.
But what brought Turkey and us together more than anything else, was
that he was as fond of Kirsty's stories as we were; and in the winter
especially we would sit together in the evening, as I have already
said, round her fire and the great pot upon it full of the most
delicious potatoes, while Kirsty knitted away vigorously at her blue
broad-ribbed stockings, and kept a sort of time to her story with the
sound of her needles. When the story flagged, the needles went slower;
in the more animated passages they would become invisible for
swiftness, save for a certain shimmering flash that hovered about her
fingers like a dim electric play; but as the story approached some
crisis, their motion would at one time become perfectly frantic, at
another cease altogether, as finding the subject beyond their power of
accompanying expression. When they ceased, we knew that something
awful indeed was at hand.
In my next chapter I will give a specimen of her stories, choosing one
which bears a little upon an after adventure.
Sir Worm Wymble
It was a snowy evening in the depth of winter. Kirsty had promised to
tell us the tale of the armed knight who lay in stone upon the tomb in
the church; but the snow was so deep, that Mrs. Mitchell, always glad
when nature put it in her power to exercise her authority in a way
disagreeable to us, had refused to let the little ones go out all day.
Therefore Turkey and I, when the darkness began to grow thick enough,
went prowling and watching about the manse until we found an
opportunity when she was out of the way. The moment this occurred we
darted into the nursery, which was on the ground floor, and catching
up my two brothers, I wee Davie, he Allister, we hoisted them on our
backs and rushed from the house. It was snowing. It came down in huge
flakes, but although it was only half-past four o'clock, they did not
show any whiteness, for there was no light to shine upon them. You
might have thought there had been mud in the cloud they came from,
which had turned them all a dark grey. How the little ones did enjoy
it, spurring their horses with suppressed laughter, and urging us on
lest the old witch should hear and overtake us! But it was hard work
for one of the horses, and that was myself. Turkey scudded away with
his load, and made nothing of it; but wee Davie pulled so hard with
his little arms round my neck, especially when he was bobbing up and
down to urge me on, half in delight, half in terror, that he nearly
choked me; while if I went one foot off the scarcely beaten path, I
sunk deep in the fresh snow.
"Doe on, doe on, Yanal!" cried Davie; and Yanal did his very best, but
was only halfway to the farm, when Turkey came bounding back to take
Davie from him. In a few moments we had shaken the snow off our shoes
and off Davie's back, and stood around Kirsty's "booful baze", as
Davie called the fire. Kirsty seated herself on one side with Davie on
her lap, and we three got our chairs as near her as we could, with
Turkey, as the valiant man of the party, farthest from the centre of
safety, namely Kirsty, who was at the same time to be the source of
all the delightful horror. I may as well say that I do not believe
Kirsty's tale had the remotest historical connection with Sir Worm
Wymble, if that was anything like the name of the dead knight. It was
an old Highland legend, which she adorned with the flowers of her own
Celtic fancy, and swathed around the form so familiar to us all.
"There is a pot in the Highlands," began Kirsty, "not far from our
house, at the bottom of a little glen. It is not very big, but
fearfully deep; so deep that they do say there is no bottom to it."
"An iron pot, Kirsty?" asked Allister.
"No, goosey," answered Kirsty. "A pot means a great hole full of
water--black, black, and deep, deep."
"Oh!" remarked Allister, and was silent.
"Well, in this pot there lived a kelpie."
"What's a kelpie, Kirsty?" again interposed Allister, who in general
asked all the necessary questions and at least as many unnecessary.
"A kelpie is an awful creature that eats people."
"But what is it like, Kirsty?"
"It's something like a horse, with a head like a cow."
"How big is it? As big as Hawkie?"
"Bigger than Hawkie; bigger than the biggest ox you ever saw."
"Has it a great mouth?"
"Yes, a terrible mouth."
"Not many, but dreadfully big ones."
"Well, there was a shepherd many years ago, who lived not far from the
pot. He was a knowing man, and understood all about kelpies and
brownies and fairies. And he put a branch of the rowan-tree
(_mountain-ash_), with the red berries in it, over the door of his
cottage, so that the kelpie could never come in.
"Now, the shepherd had a very beautiful daughter--so beautiful that
the kelpie wanted very much to eat her. I suppose he had lifted up his
head out of the pot some day and seen her go past, but he could not
come out of the pot except after the sun was down."
"Why?" asked Allister.
"I don't know. It was the nature of the beast. His eyes couldn't bear
the light, I suppose; but he could see in the dark quite well.--One
night the girl woke suddenly, and saw his great head looking in at her
"But how could she see him when it was dark?" said Allister.
"His eyes were flashing so that they lighted up all his head,"
"But he couldn't get in!"
"No; he couldn't get in. He was only looking in, and thinking how he
_should_ like to eat her. So in the morning she told her father. And
her father was very frightened, and told her she must never be out one
moment after the sun was down. And for a long time the girl was very
careful. And she had need to be; for the creature never made any
noise, but came up as quiet as a shadow. One afternoon, however, she
had gone to meet her lover a little way down the glen; and they
stopped talking so long, about one thing and another, that the sun was
almost set before she bethought herself. She said good-night at once,
and ran for home. Now she could not reach home without passing the
pot, and just as she passed the pot, she saw the last sparkle of the
sun as he went down."
"I should think she ran!" remarked our mouthpiece, Allister.
"She did run," said Kirsty, "and had just got past the awful black
pot, which was terrible enough day or night without such a beast in
"But there _was_ the beast in it," said Allister.
"When," Kirsty went on without heeding him, "she heard a great _whish_
of water behind her. That was the water tumbling off the beast's back
as he came up from the bottom. If she ran before, she flew now. And
the worst of it was that she couldn't hear him behind her, so as to
tell whereabouts he was. He might be just opening his mouth to take
her every moment. At last she reached the door, which her father, who
had gone out to look for her, had set wide open that she might run in
at once; but all the breath was out of her body, and she fell down
flat just as she got inside."
Here Allister jumped from his seat, clapping his hands and crying--
"Then the kelpie didn't eat her!--Kirsty! Kirsty!"
"No. But as she fell, one foot was left outside the threshold, so that
the rowan branch could not take care of it. And the beast laid hold of
the foot with his great mouth, to drag her out of the cottage and eat
her at his leisure."
Here Allister's face was a picture to behold! His hair was almost
standing on end, his mouth was open, and his face as white as my
"Make haste, Kirsty," said Turkey, "or Allister will go in a fit."
"But her shoe came off in his mouth, and she drew in her foot and was
Allister's hair subsided. He drew a deep breath, and sat down
again. But Turkey must have been a very wise or a very unimaginative
Turkey, for here he broke in with--
"I don't believe a word of it, Kirsty."
"What!" said Kirsty--"don't believe it!"
"No. She lost her shoe in the mud. It was some wild duck she heard in
the pot, and there was no beast after her. She never saw it, you
"She saw it look in at her window."
"Yes, yes. That was in the middle of the night. I've seen as much
myself when I waked up in the middle of the night. I took a rat for a
Kirsty was looking angry, and her needles were going even faster than
when she approached the climax of the shoe.
"Hold your tongue, Turkey," I said, "and let us hear the rest of the
But Kirsty kept her eyes on her knitting, and did not resume.
"Is that all, Kirsty?" said Allister.
Still Kirsty returned no answer. She needed all her force to overcome
the anger she was busy stifling. For it would never do for one in her
position to lose her temper because of the unbelieving criticism of a
herd-boy. It was a curious instance of the electricity flashed out in
the confluence of unlike things--the Celtic faith and the Saxon
works. For anger is just the electric flash of the mind, and requires
to have its conductor of common sense ready at hand. After a few
moments she began again as if she had never stopped and no remarks had
been made, only her voice trembled a little at first.
"Her father came home soon after, in great distress, and there he
found her lying just within the door. He saw at once how it was, and
his anger was kindled against her lover more than the beast. Not that
he had any objection to her going to meet him; for although he was a
gentleman and his daughter only a shepherd's daughter, they were both
of the blood of the MacLeods."
This was Kirsty's own clan. And indeed I have since discovered that
the original legend on which her story was founded belongs to the
island of Rasay, from which she came.
"But why was he angry with the gentleman?" asked Allister.
"Because he liked her company better than he loved herself," said
Kirsty. "At least that was what the shepherd said, and that he ought
to have seen her safe home. But he didn't know that MacLeod's father
had threatened to kill him if ever he spoke to the girl again."
"But," said Allister, "I thought it was about Sir Worm Wymble--not
"Sure, boy, and am I not going to tell you how he got the new name of
him?" returned Kirsty, with an eagerness that showed her fear lest the
spirit of inquiry should spread. "He wasn't Sir Worm Wymble then. His
Here she paused a moment, and looked full at Allister.
"His name was Allister--Allister MacLeod."
"Allister!" exclaimed my brother, repeating the name as an incredible
"Yes, Allister," said Kirsty. "There's been many an Allister, and not
all of them MacLeods, that did what they ought to do, and didn't know
what fear was. And you'll be another, my bonnie Allister, I hope," she
added, stroking the boy's hair.
Allister's face flushed with pleasure. It was long before he asked
"Well, as I say," resumed Kirsty, "the father of her was very angry,
and said she should never go and meet Allister again. But the girl
said she ought to go once and let him know why she could not come any
more; for she had no complaint to make of Allister; and she had agreed
to meet him on a certain day the week after; and there was no
post-office in those parts. And so she did meet him, and told him all
about it. And Allister said nothing much then. But next day he came
striding up to the cottage, at dinner-time, with his claymore
(_gladius major_) at one side, his dirk at the other, and his little
skene dubh (_black knife_) in his stocking. And he was grand to
see--such a big strong gentleman I And he came striding up to the
cottage where the shepherd was sitting at his dinner.
"'Angus MacQueen,' says he, 'I understand the kelpie in the pot has
been rude to your Nellie. I am going to kill him.' 'How will you do
that, sir?' said Angus, quite short, for he was the girl's father.
'Here's a claymore I could put in a peck,' said Allister, meaning it
was such good steel that he could bend it round till the hilt met the
point without breaking; 'and here's a shield made out of the hide of
old Rasay's black bull; and here's a dirk made of a foot and a half of
an old Andrew Ferrara; and here's a skene dubh that I'll drive through
your door, Mr. Angus. And so we're fitted, I hope.' 'Not at all,' said
Angus, who as I told you was a wise man and a knowing; 'not one bit,'
said Angus. 'The kelpie's hide is thicker than three bull-hides, and
none of your weapons would do more than mark it.' 'What am I to do
then, Angus, for kill him I will somehow?' 'I'll tell you what to do;
but it needs a brave man to do that.' 'And do you think I'm not brave
enough for that, Angus?' 'I know one thing you are not brave enough
for.' 'And what's that?' said Allister, and his face grew red, only he
did not want to anger Nelly's father. 'You're not brave enough to
marry my girl in the face of the clan,' said Angus. 'But you shan't go
on this way. If my Nelly's good enough to talk to in the glen, she's
good enough to lead into the hall before the ladies and gentlemen.'
"Then Allister's face grew redder still, but not with anger, and he
held down his head before the old man, but only for a few moments.
When he lifted it again, it was pale, not with fear but with
resolution, for he had made up his mind like a gentleman. 'Mr. Angus
MacQueen,' he said, 'will you give me your daughter to be my wife?'
'If you kill the kelpie, I will,' answered Angus; for he knew that the
man who could do that would be worthy of his Nelly."
"But what if the kelpie ate him?" suggested Allister.
"Then he'd have to go without the girl," said Kirsty, coolly. "But,"
she resumed, "there's always some way of doing a difficult thing; and
Allister, the gentleman, had Angus, the shepherd, to teach him.
"So Angus took Allister down to the pot, and there they began. They
tumbled great stones together, and set them up in two rows at a little
distance from each other, making a lane between the rows big enough
for the kelpie to walk in. If the kelpie heard them, he could not see
them, and they took care to get into the cottage before it was dark,
for they could not finish their preparations in one day. And they sat
up all night, and saw the huge head of the beast looking in now at one
window, now at another, all night long. As soon as the sun was up,
they set to work again, and finished the two rows of stones all the
way from the pot to the top of the little hill on which the cottage
stood. Then they tied a cross of rowan-tree twigs on every stone, so
that once the beast was in the avenue of stones he could only get out
at the end. And this was Nelly's part of the job. Next they gathered a
quantity of furze and brushwood and peat, and piled it in the end of
the avenue next the cottage. Then Angus went and killed a little pig,
and dressed it ready for cooking.
"'Now you go down to my brother Hamish,' he said to Mr. MacLeod; 'he's
a carpenter, you know,--and ask him to lend you his longest wimble.'"
"What's a wimble?" asked little Allister.
"A wimble is a long tool, like a great gimlet, with a cross handle,
with which you turn it like a screw. And Allister ran and fetched it,
and got back only half an hour before the sun went down. Then they put
Nelly into the cottage, and shut the door. But I ought to have told
you that they had built up a great heap of stones behind the
brushwood, and now they lighted the brushwood, and put down the pig to
roast by the fire, and laid the wimble in the fire halfway up to the
handle. Then they laid themselves down behind the heap of stones and
"By the time the sun was out of sight, the smell of the roasting pig
had got down the avenue to the side of the pot, just where the kelpie
always got out. He smelt it the moment he put up his head, and he
thought it smelt so nice that he would go and see where it was. The
moment he got out he was between the stones, but he never thought of
that, for it was the straight way to the pig. So up the avenue he
came, and as it was dark, and his big soft web feet made no noise, the
men could not see him until he came into the light of the fire. 'There
he is!' said Allister. 'Hush!' said Angus, 'he can hear well enough.'
So the beast came on. Now Angus had meant that he should be busy with
the pig before Allister should attack him; but Allister thought it was
a pity he should have the pig, and he put out his hand and got hold of
the wimble, and drew it gently out of the fire. And the wimble was so
hot that it was as white as the whitest moon you ever saw. The pig was
so hot also that the brute was afraid to touch it, and before ever he
put his nose to it Allister had thrust the wimble into his hide,
behind the left shoulder, and was boring away with all his might. The
kelpie gave a hideous roar, and turned away to run from the wimble.
But he could not get over the row of crossed stones, and he had to
turn right round in the narrow space before he could run. Allister,
however, could run as well as the kelpie, and he hung on to the handle
of the wimble, giving it another turn at every chance as the beast
went floundering on; so that before he reached his pot the wimble had
reached his heart, and the kelpie fell dead on the edge of the
pot. Then they went home, and when the pig was properly done they had
it for supper. And Angus gave Nelly to Allister, and they were
married, and lived happily ever after."
"But didn't Allister's father kill him?"
"No. He thought better of it, and didn't. He was very angry for a
while, but he got over it in time. And Allister became a great man,
and because of what he had done, he was called Allister MacLeod no
more, but Sir Worm Wymble. And when he died," concluded Kirsty, "he
was buried under the tomb in your father's church. And if you look
close enough, you'll find a wimble carved on the stone, but I'm afraid
it's worn out by this time."
Silence followed the close of Kirsty's tale. Wee Davie had taken no
harm, for he was fast asleep with his head on her bosom. Allister was
staring into the fire, fancying he saw the whorls of the wimble
heating in it. Turkey was cutting at his stick with a blunt
pocket-knife, and a silent whistle on his puckered lips. I was sorry
the story was over, and was growing stupid under the reaction from its
excitement. I was, however, meditating a strict search for the wimble
carved on the knight's tomb. All at once came the sound of a latch
lifted in vain, followed by a thundering at the outer door, which
Kirsty had prudently locked. Allister, Turkey, and I started to our
feet, Allister with a cry of dismay, Turkey grasping his stick.
"It's the kelpie!" cried Allister.
But the harsh voice of the old witch followed, something deadened by
the intervening door.
"Kirsty! Kirsty!" it cried; "open the door directly."
"No, no, Kirsty!" I objected. "She'll shake wee Davie to bits, and
haul Allister through the snow. She's afraid to touch me."
Turkey thrust the poker in the fire; but Kirsty snatched it out, threw
it down, and boxed his ears, which rough proceeding he took with the
pleasantest laugh in the world. Kirsty could do what she pleased, for
she was no tyrant. She turned to us.
"Hush!" she said, hurriedly, with a twinkle in her eyes that showed
the spirit of fun was predominant--"Hush!--Don't speak, wee Davie,"
she continued, as she rose and carried him from the kitchen into the
passage between it and the outer door. He was scarcely awake.
Now, in that passage, which was wide, and indeed more like a hall in
proportion to the cottage, had stood on its end from time immemorial a
huge barrel, which Kirsty, with some housewifely intent or other, had
lately cleaned out. Setting Davie down, she and Turkey lifted first me
and popped me into it, and then Allister, for we caught the design at
once. Finally she took up wee Davie, and telling him to lie as still
as a mouse, dropped him into our arms. I happened to find the open
bung-hole near my eye, and peeped out. The knocking continued.
"Wait a bit, Mrs. Mitchell," screamed Kirsty; "wait till I get my
potatoes off the fire."
As she spoke, she took the great bow-pot in one hand and carried it to
the door, to pour away the water. When she unlocked and opened the
door, I saw through the bung-hole a lovely sight; for the moon was
shining, and the snow was falling thick. In the midst of it stood
Mrs. Mitchell, one mass of whiteness. She would have rushed in, but
Kirsty's advance with the pot made her give way, and from behind
Kirsty Turkey slipped out and round the corner without being seen.
There he stood watching, but busy at the same time kneading snowballs.
"And what may you please to want to-night, Mrs. Mitchell?" said
Kirsty, with great civility.
"What should I want but my poor children? They ought to have been in
bed an hour ago. Really, Kirsty, you ought to have more sense at your
years than to encourage any such goings on."
"At my years!" returned Kirsty, and was about to give a sharp retort,
but checked herself, saying, "Aren't they in bed then, Mrs. Mitchell?"
"You know well enough they are not."
"Poor things! I would recommend you to put them to bed at once."
"So I will. Where are they?"
"Find them yourself, Mrs. Mitchell. You had better ask a civil tongue
to help you. I'm not going to do it."
They were standing just inside the door. Mrs. Mitchell advanced. I
trembled. It seemed impossible she should not see me as well as I saw
her. I had a vague impression that by looking at her I should draw her
eyes upon me; but I could not withdraw mine from the bung-hole. I was
fascinated; and the nearer she came, the less could I keep from
watching her. When she turned into the kitchen, it was a great relief;
but it did not last long, for she came out again in a moment,
searching like a hound. She was taller than Kirsty, and by standing on
her tiptoes could have looked right down into the barrel. She was
approaching it with that intent--those eyes were about to overshadow
us with their baleful light. Already her apron hid all other vision
from my one eye, when a whizz, a dull blow, and a shriek from Mrs.
Mitchell came to my ears together. The next moment, the field of my
vision was open, and I saw Mrs. Mitchell holding her head with both
hands, and the face of Turkey grinning round the corner of the open
door. Evidently he wanted to entice her to follow him; but she had
been too much astonished by the snowball in the back of her neck even
to look in the direction whence the blow had come. So Turkey stepped
out, and was just poising himself in the delivery of a second missile,
when she turned sharp round.
The snowball missed her, and came with a great bang against the
barrel. Wee Davie gave a cry of alarm, but there was no danger now,
for Mrs. Mitchell was off after Turkey. In a moment, Kirsty lowered
the barrel on its side, and we all crept out. I had wee Davie on my
back instantly, while Kirsty caught up Allister, and we were off for
the manse. As soon as we were out of the yard, however, we met Turkey,
breathless. He had given Mrs. Mitchell the slip, and left her
searching the barn for him. He took Allister from Kirsty, and we sped
away, for it was all downhill now. When Mrs. Mitchell got back to the
farmhouse, Kirsty was busy as if nothing had happened, and when, after
a fruitless search, she returned to the manse, we were all snug in
bed, with the door locked. After what had passed about the school,
Mrs. Mitchell did not dare make any disturbance.
From that night she always went by the name of _the Kelpie_.
In the summer we all slept in a large room in the wide sloping roof.
It had a dormer window, at no great distance above the eaves. One day
there was something doing about the ivy, which covered all the gable
and half the front of the house, and the ladder they had been using
was left leaning against the back. It reached a little above the
eaves, right under the dormer window. That night I could not sleep, as
was not unfrequently the case with me. On such occasions I used to go
wandering about the upper part of the house. I believe the servants
thought I walked in my sleep, but it was not so, for I always knew
what I was about well enough. I do not remember whether this began
after that dreadful night when I woke in the barn, but I do think the
enjoyment it gave me was rooted in the starry loneliness in which I
had then found myself. I wonder if I can explain my feelings. The
pleasure arose from a sort of sense of protected danger. On that
memorable night, I had been as it were naked to all the silence, alone
in the vast universe, which kept looking at me full of something it
knew but would not speak. Now, when wandering about sleepless, I could
gaze as from a nest of safety out upon the beautiful fear. From window
to window I would go in the middle of the night, now staring into a
blank darkness out of which came, the only signs of its being, the
raindrops that bespattered or the hailstones that berattled the panes;
now gazing into the deeps of the blue vault, gold-bespangled with its
worlds; or, again, into the mysteries of soft clouds, all gathered
into an opal tent by the centre-clasp of the moon, thinking out her
light over its shining and shadowy folds.
This, I have said, was one of those nights on which I could not sleep.
It was the summer after the winter-story of the kelpie, I believe; but
the past is confused, and its chronology worthless, to the continuous
_now_ of childhood. The night was hot; my little brothers were
sleeping loud, as wee Davie called _snoring_; and a great moth had got
within my curtains somewhere, and kept on fluttering and whirring. I
got up, and went to the window. It was such a night! The moon was
full, but rather low, and looked just as if she were thinking--"Nobody
is heeding me: I may as well go to bed." All the top of the sky was
covered with mackerel-backed clouds, lying like milky ripples on a
blue sea, and through them the stars shot, here and there, sharp
little rays like sparkling diamonds. There was no awfulness about it,
as on the night when the gulfy sky stood over me, flashing with the
heavenly host, and nothing was between me and the farthest world. The
clouds were like the veil that hid the terrible light in the Holy of
Holies--a curtain of God's love, to dim with loveliness the grandeur
of their own being, and make his children able to bear it. My eye fell
upon the top rounds of the ladder, which rose above the edge of the
roof like an invitation. I opened the window, crept through, and,
holding on by the ledge, let myself down over the slates, feeling with
my feet for the top of the ladder. In a moment I was upon it. Down I
went, and oh, how tender to my bare feet was the cool grass on which I
alighted! I looked up. The dark housewall rose above me. I could
ascend again when I pleased. There was no hurry. I would walk about a
little. I would put my place of refuge yet a little farther off,
nibble at the danger, as it were--a danger which existed only in my
imagination. I went outside the high holly hedge, and the house was
hidden. A grassy field was before me, and just beyond the field rose
the farm buildings. Why should not I run across and wake Turkey? I was
off like a shot, the expectation of a companion in my delight
overcoming all the remnants of lingering apprehension. I knew there
was only one bolt, and that a manageable one, between me and Turkey,
for he slept in a little wooden chamber partitioned off from a loft in
the barn, to which he had to climb a ladder. The only fearful part was
the crossing of the barn-floor. But I was man enough for that. I
reached and crossed the yard in safety, searched for and found the key
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