Samuel Crockett.

The Standard Bearer





But though the former stress of trial was over, this day of quiet was far harder to bear than the day before. For, then, with the excitation of battle, the plaudits of the people, the quick necessities of verbal defence against many adversaries, my spirits were kept up. But now there was none in the manse beside myself, and I took to wandering up and down the little sequestered kirk-loaning, thinking how that by this time the Presbytery was met to speed my doom, and that the pleasant place which knew me now would soon know me no more for ever.

As I lingered at the road-end, thinking how much I would have given for a heartening word, and vaguely resolving to betake me over to the house of Drumglass, where at the least I was sure of companionship and consolation, I chanced to cast my eyes to the southward, and there along the light grey riverside track I beheld a lady riding.

As she came nearer, I saw that it was none other than Mistress Mary Gordon. I thought I had never seen her look winsomer a rounded lissom form, a perfect seat, a dainty and well-ordered carriage.

I stood still where I was and waited for her to pass me. I had my hat in my hand, and in my heart I counted on nothing but that she should ride by me as though she saw me not.

But on the contrary, she reined her horse and sat waiting for me to speak to her.

So I went to her bridle-rein and looked up at the face, and lo! it was kindlier than ever I had seen it before, with a sort of loving pity on it which I found it very hard to bear.

Will you let me walk by your side a little way? I asked of her. For as we had parted without a farewell, so on this bitterest day we met again without greeting.

My Lady Mary, I said at last, I have gone through much since I went out from your house at Earlstoun. I have yet much to win through. We parted in anger but let us meet in peace. I am a man outcast and friendless, save for these foolish few in this parish who to their cost have made my quarrel theirs.

At this she looked right kindly down upon me and paused a little before she answered.

Quintin, she said, there is no anger in my heart anywhere. There is only a great wae. I have come from the place of Balmaghie where my cousin Kate of Lochinvar waits her good fathers passing.

And ride you home to the Earlstoun alone? I asked.

Aye, she said, a little wistfully. And the saying cheered me. For this river way was not the girls straight road homeward, and it came to me that mayhap Mary Gordon had wished to meet and comfort me in my sorrow.

My father is abroad, we know not well where, she said, or doubtless he would gladly support you in the way that you have chosen. Perhaps your way is not my way, but it must be a good way of its kind, the way of a mans conscience.

She reached down a hand to me, which I took and pressed gratefully enough.

It was then that we came in sight of the white house of Drumglass sitting above the water-meadows.

At the first glimpse of it the Lady Mary drew away her hand from mine.

Is it true, she said, looking at the blue ridges of Cairnsmore in the distance, that which I have been told, that you are to wed a daughter of that house?

I inclined my head without speech. I knew that the bitterest part of my punishment was now come upon me.

And did you come straight from the Earlstoun to offer her also your position, your well-roofed manse, your income good as that of any laird?

We had stopped in a sheltered place by the river where the hazel bushes are many and the gorse grows long and rank, mingling with the bloom and the fringing bog-myrtle.

My Lady Mary, said I, after a pause, I offered her not anything. I had nothing to offer. But in time of need she let me see the warmth of her heart and I had none other comfort!

Then upon this day of days why are you not by her side, that her love may ease the smart of your bitter outcasting?

In yonder kirk mine enemies work my doom, said I, pointing over the water, and ere another sun rise I shall be no more minister of Balmaghie, but a homeless man, without either a rooftree or a reeking ingle. I have nothing to offer any woman. Why should I claim this day any womans love?

Ah, she said, giving me the strangest look, it is her hour. For if she loves you, she would fly to-day to share your dry crust, your sapless bite. See, she cried, stretching out her hand with a large action, if Mary Gordon loved a man, she would follow him in her sark to the worlds end. If so be his eyes had looked the deathless love into hers, his tongue told of love, love, only of love. Ah, that alone is worth calling love which feeds full on the scorns of life and grows lusty on black misfortune!

Lady Mary I began.

But she interrupted me, dashing her hand furtively to her face.

She pointed up towards the house of Drumglass.

Yonder lies your way, Quintin MacClellan! Go to the woman you love who loves you.

She lifted the reins from the horses neck and would have started forward, but again I had gotten her hand. Yet I only bent and kissed it without word, reverently and sadly as one kisses the brow of the dead.

She moved away without anger and with her eyes downcast. But on the summit of a little hill she half turned about in her saddle and spoke a strange word.

Quintin, she said, wherefore could ye not have waited? Wherefore kenned ye no better than to take a woman at her first word?

And with that she set the spurs to her beast and went up the road toward the ford at the gallop, till almost I feared to watch her.

For a long time I stood sadly enough looking after her. And I grant that my heart was like lead within me. My spirit had no power in it. I cried out to God to let me die. For it was scarce a fair thing that she should have spoken that word now when it was too late.

CHAPTER XXV
BEHIND THE BROOM

But this 30th of December had yet more in store for me. The minting die was yet to be dinted deeper into my heart.

For, as I turned me about to go back the way I came, there by the copse side, where the broom grew highest, stood Jean Gemmell, with a face suddenly drawn thin, grey-white and wan like the melting snow.

Jean! I cried, what do ye there?

She tried to smile, but her eyes had a fixed and glassy look, and she seemed to be mastering herself so that she might speak.

I think that she had a speech prepared in her heart, for several times she strove to begin, and the words were always the same. But at last all that she could say was no more than this, You love her?

And with a little hand she pointed to where the Lady Mary had disappeared. I could see it shaking like a willow leaf as she held it out.

Jean, said I, kindly as I could, what brought you so far from home on such a bitter day? It is not fit. You will get your death of cold.

I have gotten my death, she said, with a little gasping laugh, I have gotten my sentence. Do not I take it well?

And she tried to smile again.

Then I went quickly to her, and caught her by the hand, and put my arm about her. For I feared that she would fall prostrate where she stood. Notwithstanding, she kept on smiling through unshed tears, and never for a moment took her eyes off my face.

I heard what you and she said. Yes, I listened. A great lady would not have listened. But I am no better than a little cot-house lass, and I spied upon you. Yes, I hid among the broom. You will never forgive me.

I tried to hush her with kind words, but somehow they seemed to pass her by. I think she did not even hear them.

You love her, she said; yes, I know it. Jonita told me that from the first that I could never be your wife, though I had led you on. Yes, I own it. I tried to win you. A great lady would not. But I did. I threw myself in your way. Shamelessly I cast myself Jonita says it into your arms!

Ah, God! she broke off with a little frantic cry, sinking her head between her palms quickly, and then flinging her arms down. And would I not have cast myself under your feet as readily, that you might trample me? I know I am not long for this world. I ken that I have bartered away eternity for naught. I have lied to God. And why not? You that are a minister, tell me why not? Would not I gladly barter all heaven for one hour of your love on earth? You may despise me, but I loved you. Yes, she is great, fair, full of length of days and pride of life the Lord of Earlstouns daughter. Yet and yet and yet, she could not love you better than I. In that I defy her!

And she shall have you yes, I will give you up to her. For that is the one way an ignorant lass can love. They tell me that by to-morrow you will be no longer minister. You will be put out of the manse like a bird out of a harried nest. And at first I was glad when I heard it. For (thought I) he will come and tell me. We will be poor together. She said the truth, for indeed she knoweth somewhat, this Lady Mary Love is not possessions! No, but it is possessing. And I had but one but one! And that she has taken away from me.

She lifted her kerchief to her lips, for all suddenly a fit of coughing had taken her.

In a moment she drew it away, glanced at it quickly, and lo! it was stained with a clear and brilliant red.

Then she laughed abruptly, a strange, hollow-sounding little laugh.

I am glad glad, she said. Ah! this is my warrant for departure. Well do I ken the sign, for I mind when my brother Andrew saw it first. Quintin, dear lad, you will get her yet, and with honour.

Come, Jean, said I, gently as I could, the air is shrewd. You are ill and weak. Lean on my arm, and I will take you home.

She looked up at me with dry, brilliant eyes. There was nothing strange about them save that the lids seemed swollen and unnaturally white.

Quintin, she made answer, smiling, it was foolish from the first, was it not, lad o my love? Did you ever say a sweet thing to me, like one that comes courting a lass in the gloaming? Say it now to me, will you not? I would like to hear how it would have sounded.

I was silent. I seemed to have no words to answer her with.

She laughed a little.

I forgot. Pardon me, Quintin. You are in trouble to-day deep trouble. I should not add to it. It is I who should say loving things to you. But then then you would care more for flouts and anger from her than for all the naked sweetness of poor Jean Gemmells heart.

And the very pitifulness of her voice drew a cry of anger out of my breast. At the first sound of it she stopped and leaned back in my arms to look into my face. Then she put up her hand very gently and patted me tenderly on the cheek like one that comforts a fretful fractious child.

I vex you, she said, you that have overmuch to vex you. But I shall not vex you long. See, she said, there is the door. Yonder is my father standing by it. He is looking at us under his hand. There is Jonita, too, and your brother Hob. Shall we go and tell them that this is all a mistake, that there is to be no more between us? that we are free free, both of us you to wed the Lady Mary, I to keep my tryst to keep my tryst with Death!

At the last words her voice sank to a whisper.

Something broke in her throat and seemed to choke her. She fell back in my arms with her kerchief again to her mouth.

They saw us from the door, and Alexander-Jonita came flying towards us like the wind over the short grass of the meadow.

Jean took her kerchief away, without looking at it this time. She lifted her eyes to mine and smiled very sweetly.

I am glad glad, she whispered; do not be sorry, Quintin. But do just this one thing for me, will you, lad but only this one thing. Do not tell them. Let us pretend. Would it be wrong, think you, to pretend a little that you love me? You are a minister, and should know. But, if you could why, it would be so sweet. And then it would not be for long, Quintin.

She spoke coaxingly, and withal most tenderly.

Jean, I do love you! I cried.

And for the first time in my life I meant it. She seemed to be like my sister Anna to me.

By this time, seeing Jonita coming, she had recovered herself somewhat and taken my arm. At my words she pressed it a little, and smiled.

Oh, she said, you need not begin yet. Only before them. I want them to think that you love me a little, you see. Is it not small and foolish of me?

But I do I do truly love you, Jean, I cried. Did you ever know me to tell a lie?

She smiled again and nodded, like one who smiles at a child who has well learned his lesson.

Alexander-Jonita came rushing up.

Jean, Jean, where have you been? What is the matter?

I have been meeting Quintin, she said, with a bright and heavenly look; he has been telling me how he loves me.

CHAPTER XXVI
JEAN GEMMELLS BARGAIN WITH GOD

Yet more grimly bitter than the day of December the thirtieth fell the night. I wandered by the bank of the river, where the sedges rustled lonely and dry by the marge, whispering and chuckling to each other that a forlorn, broken man was passing by. A smurr of rain had begun to fall at the hour of dusk, and the slight ice of the morning had long since broken up. The water lisped and sobbed as the wind of winter lapped at the ripples, and the peat-brew of the hills took its sluggish way to the sea.

Over against me, set on its hill, I saw the lighted windows of the kirk of Crossmichael. Well I knew what that meant. Mine enemies were sitting there in conclave. They would not rise till I was no more minister of the Kirk of Scotland. They would thrust me out, and whither should I go? To what folk could I minister an it were not, like Alexander-Jonita, to the wild beasts of the hills? A day before I should have been elated at the thought. But now, for the first time, I saw myself unworthy.

Who was I, that thought so highly of myself, that I should appoint me Standard Bearer of the noble banner of the Covenants. A man weak as other men! Nay, infinitely weaker and worse. The meanest hind who worked in the fields to bring home four silver shillings a week to his wife and bairns was better than I.

A Standard Bearer! I laughed now at the thought, and the rushes by the waters edges chuckled and sneered in answering derision.

A Standard Bearer, God wot! Renegade and traitor, rather; a man who could not keep his plain vows, whose erring and wandering heart went after vanities; one that had broken a maidens heart unwitting and unintending, did he pretend? Faugh! that was what every Lovelace alleged as his excuse.

I had thought myself worthy to do battle for the purity of the Kirk of my fathers. I had pretended that her independence, her position and her power were dearer than life to me. I saw it all now. It was mine own place and position I had been warring for.

Also had I not set myself above my brethren? Had I not said, Get far from me, for am I not holier than thou?

And God, who does not pay His wages on Saturday night, had waited. So now He came to me and said, Who art thou, Quintin MacClellan, that thou shouldst dare to touch the ark of God?

And as I looked across the dark waters I saw the light burn clearer and clearer in the kirk of Crossmichael. They were lighting more candles that they might see the better to make an end.

God speed them, cried I, in the darkness; they are doing Gods work. For they could do nothing except it were permitted of Him. Shall I step into the boat that rocks and clatters with the little wavelets leaping against its side? Shall I call John the ferryman and go over and make my submission before them all?

I could tell them what an unworthy, forsworn, ill-hearted man I am.

Thus I stood by the riverside. Almost I had lifted up my voice to cry aloud that I would make this acknowledgment and reparation, when through the darkness I saw a shape approach.

A voice said in my ear, Come Jean Gemmell is taken suddenly ill. She would see you at once.

Then I was aware that this 30th of December was to be my great day of judgment and wrath, when the six vials were to be loosed upon me. I knew that the Lord whose name I had taken in vain was that day to smite me with a great smiting, because, being unworthy, I had put out my hand to stay the ark of the covenant of God.

Hob, said I, for it was my brother who had come to summon me, is she yet alive?

Alive! said he, abruptly. Why, bless the man, she wants you to marry her.

Marry said I, I am a minister of the kirk. I have ever spoken against irregular marriages. How can I marry without another minister?

Hob laughed a short laugh. He never thought much of my love-making.

Better marry than burn! quoth he, abruptly. Mr. Hepburn, of Buittle Kirk, is here. He came over to hearten you in the day of your adversity.

Then I recognised the hand of God in the thing and bowed my head.

So in an aching expectant silence, hearing only a poor divided heart pulse within me, I followed Hob over the moor, and up by the sides of the frozen mosses to the house of Drumglass. He knew the way blindfold, which shows what a wonderful gift he had among the hills. For I myself had gone that way ten times for his once. Yet that night, save for my brother, I had stumbled to my hurt among the crags.

Presently we came to the entering in of the farmyard. Lights were gleaming here and there, and I saw some of the servant men clustered at the stable door.

There was a hush of expectation about the place, as if they were waiting for some notable thing which was about to happen.

Nathan Gemmell met me in the outer hall, and shook me by the hand silently, like a chief mourner at a funeral. Then he led the way into the inner room. Hepburn came forward also, and took my hand. He was a man of dark and determined countenance, yet with singularly lovable eyes which now and then unexpectedly beaconed kindliness.

Jean sat on a great chair, and beside her stood Alexander-Jonita.

When I came in Jean rose firmly to her feet. She looked about her with a proud look like one that would say, See, all ye people, this is he!

Quintin! she said, and laying her thin fingers on my shoulders, she looked deep into my eyes.

Never did I meet such a look. It seemed to be compound of life and death, of the love earthly and the love eternal.

Good friends, she said, calmly turning to them as though she had been the minister and accustomed to speak in the hearing of men, I have summoned my love hastily. I have somewhat to say to him. Will you leave us alone for ten minutes? I have a word to say in his ear alone. It is not strange, is it, at such a time?

And she smiled brightly upon them, while I stood dumb and astonished. For I knew not whence the lass, ordinarily so still and fond, had gotten her language. She spoke as one who has long made up his mind, and to whom fit and prepared words come without effort.

When they were gone she sat down on the chair again, and, taking my hand, motioned me to kneel down beside her.

Then she laid her hand to my hair and touched it lightly.

Quintin, she said, you and I have not long to sit sweethearting together. I must say quickly that which I have to say. I am, you will peradventure think, a bold, immodest lass. You remember it was I who courted you, compelled you, followed you, spied on you. But then, you see, I loved you. Now I want to ask you to marry me!

Nay, she said, interrupting my words more with her hand than her voice, misjudge me not. I am to die to die soon. It has been revealed to me that I have bartered the life eternal for this. And, since so it is, I desire to drink the sweetness of it to the cups bottom. I have made a bargain with God. I have prayed, and I have promised that if He will put it in your heart to wed with me for an hour, I will take with gratitude and thankfulness all that lies waiting over there, beyond the Black River.

She waved her hand down toward the Dee water.

I smiled and nodded hopefully and comfortingly to her. At that moment I felt that nothing was too great for me to do. And it mattered little when I married her. I had ever meant to be true to her save in that which I could not help, the love of my heart of hearts, which, having been anothers from the beginning was not mine to give.

Jean Gemmell smiled.

I thank you, Quintin, she said, this is like you, and better than I deserve. Had it been a matter of days or weeks I would never have troubled you. But tis only the matter of an hour or two!

She paused a little, stroking my head fondly.

And afterwards you will say, remembering me, Poor young thing, she loved me, loved me truly! Ah, Quintin, I think I should have made you a good wife. Love helps all things, they say. Put your hand below my head, Quintin. Tell me again that you love me. Sweetheart (now she was whispering), do you know I have to tell you all that you should say to me? Is that fair that I should make love to you and to myself too?

I groaned aloud.

God help us, Jean, I said, we shall yet be happy together. And at the moment I meant it. I felt that a lifetime of sacrifice would not make up for such love.





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