The Standard Bearerскачать книгу бесплатно
The whistle of the pistol ball as it sped harmlessly by waked me as from a dream. A quick horror took me by the throat. I seemed to see myself laid face down on the turf and the murderer of the poor wanderer pouring shot after shot into my back. I felt my knees tremble, and it seemed (as it often does in a nightmare) that if he pursued I should be unable to move. But even as I saw the man in red reach for his other pistol the power came back to my limbs.
I turned and ran without knowing it, for the next thing I remember was the scuff of the wind about my ears as I sped recklessly down the steepest slope, with no feeling that my feet were touching the ground at all. I saw Ashie and Gray scouring far before me, with their tails clapped between their legs, for I suppose that their master’s fear had communicated itself to them. Yet all the time I knew well that a single false step, a stumble upon a twisted root of burnt heather, a treacherous clump of grass amid the green slime of the morass, and the fate of the fallen martyr would be mine.
But ere I passed quite out of range I heard the rattle of a dropping fusillade from the edge of the hill above me, as a number of the soldiers let off their pieces at me, firing, I think, half in sport and half from a feeling of chagrin that they had let a more important victim escape them. I heard the whisk-whisk of the balls as they flew wide, and one whizzed past my ear and buried itself with a vicious spit in the moss a yard or two before me as I ran – but all harmless, and soon I was out of range. For I think it was more in cruel jest and with raffish laughter than with any intent to harm me that the soldiers fired.
Nevertheless, my boy’s heart was full of wild fear. I had seen murder done. The wholesome green earth was spotted black with crime. Red motes danced in the sunshine. The sun himself in the wide blue heavens seemed turned to blood.
Then, all suddenly, I thought of my mother, and my heart stood still. It would soon be the hour at which it was her custom to take out victual to the little craggy linn where my father was in hiding. So with a new access of terror I turned towards our house of Ardarroch, and ran to warn her of what I had seen upon the Bennan top.
I felt as I sped along that life could never be the same to me again. From a heedless boy I had grown into a man in one unutterable hour. I had, of course, heard much of killings, and even as a child the relation of the cruelties of the Highland Host had impressed me so that the red glinting of a soldier’s coat would send me into the deepest thickets of Ardarroch wood. But it was the musket shot poured into the back of the poor helpless lad on the Bennan that made a lifelong Covenanter of Quintin MacClellan.
THE LITTLE LADY OF EARLSTOUN
But it was not the will of God that I should warn my mother that day; for even as I ran, threading my way among the scattered boulders and whin bushes of the lower slopes, I came upon that which surprised me almost as greatly as the shooting itself.
Right in my path a little girl was sitting on a green mound like a deserted ant hillock: She had long yellow hair, and a red cloak was about her, with a hood to it, which came over her head and partly shaded her brow.
A wooden pail had been placed carefully on the heather at her feet. Now, what with the perturbation of my spirits and my head being full of country tales of bogles and elves, at the first glance I took the maid for one of these, and would have avoided and given her a wide berth as something much less than canny.
But she wiped her eyes with her little white hand, and as I looked more closely I saw that she had been crying, for her face was rubbed red, and her cheeks all harrowed and begrutten with tears.
So at that I feared no more, but went nearer. She seemed about seven or eight, and very well grown for her age.
“Why do you cry, little maid?” I said to her, standing before her in the green path.
For a while she did not answer, but continued to sob. I went near to comfort her, but she thrust her hand impatiently out at me.
“Do not touch me, ragged boy,” she said; “it is not for herd laddies to touch little ladies.”
And she spoke the words with such mightily offended dignity that on another occasion I would have laughed.
Then she commanded herself and dried her eyes on her red cloak.
“Carry the can and come with me to find my father,” she ordered, pointing imperiously with her finger as if I had been no better than a blackamoor slave in the plantations.
I lifted the wooden pail. It contained, as I think, cakes of oatmeal with cheese and butter wrapped in green leaves. But the little girl would not let me so much as look within.
“These are for my father,” she said; “my father is the greatest man in the whole world!”
“But who may your father be, little one?” I asked her, standing stock still on the green highway with the can in my hand. She was daintily arranging the cloak about her like a fine lady. She paused, and looked at me very grave and not a little indignant.
“That is not for you to know,” she said, with dignity; “follow me with the pail.”
So saying she stalked away with dignified carriage in the direction of the hill-top. A wild fear seized me. One of the two men I had seen fleeing might be the little girl’s father. Perhaps he into whose back – ah! at all hazards I must not let her go that way.
“Could we not rest awhile here,” I suggested, “here behind this bush? There are wicked men upon the hill, and they might take away the pail from us.”
“Then my father would kill them,” she said, shaking her head sagely, but never stopping a moment on her upward way. “Besides, my mother told me to take the pail to the hill-top and stand there in my red cloak till my father should come. But it was so hot and the pail so heavy that – ”
“That you cried?” I said as she stopped.
“Nay,” she answered with an offended look; “little ladies do not cry. I was only sorry out loud that my father should be kept waiting so long.”
“And your mother sent you all this way by yourself; was not that cruel of her?” I went on to try her.
“Little ragged boy,” she said, looking at me with a certain compassion, “you do not know what you are saying. I cannot, indeed, tell you who my father is, but I am Mary Gordon, and my mother is the Lady of Earlstoun.”
So I was speaking to the daughter of Alexander Gordon of Earlstoun, the most famous Covenanter in Scotland, and, next to my Lord Viscount of Kenmure, the chief landowner in our countryside.
“And have you come alone all the way from Earlstoun hither?” I asked in astonishment, for the distance was at least four or five miles and the road rough and ill-trodden.
“Nay,” she made answer, “not so. My mother set me so far upon the way, and now she waits for me by the bushes yonder, so that I must make haste and return. We came in a boat to your water-foot down there where the little bay is and the pretty white sand.”
And she pointed with her hand to where the peaty water of the moorland stream mingled with and stained the deep blue of the loch.
“Haste you, laddie,” she cried sharply a moment after; “my father is not a one to be kept waiting. He will be impatient and angry. And because he is so great a man his anger is hard to bide.”
“You must not go up to the hill-top,” I said, “for there are many bad men on the Bennan to-day, and they would perhaps kill you.”
“But my father is there,” said she, stopping and looking at me reproachfully. “I must go; my mother bade me.”
And haply at that moment I saw the entire company of soldiers, led by the man in the red coat, stringing down the farther side of the mountain in the line of flight by which the second fugitive had made good his escape. So I judged it might be as well to satisfy the lass and let her go on to the top. Indeed, short of laying hold of her by force, I knew not well how to hinder so instant and imperious a dame.
Besides, I thought that by a little generalship I would be able to keep her wide of the place where lay the poor body of the slain man.
So straight up the hill upon which I had seen such terrible things we went, Ashie and Gray slinking unwillingly and shamefacedly behind. And as I went I cast an eye to my flock. And it appeared strange to me that the lambs should still be feeding quietly and peacefully down there, cropping and straying on the green scattered pastures of Ardarroch. Yet in the interval all the world had changed to me.
We reached the summit.
“Here is the place I was to wait for my father,” said Mary Gordon. “I must arrange my hair, little boy, for my father loves to see me well-ordered, though he is indeed himself most careless in his attiring.”
She gave vent to a long sigh, as if her father’s delinquencies of toilette had proved a matter of lifelong sorrow to her.
“But then, you see, my father is a great man and does as he pleases.”
She put her hand to her brow and looked under the sun this way and that over the moor.
“There are so many evil men hereabout – your father may have gone down the further side to escape them,” I said. For I desired to withdraw her gaze from the northern verge of the tableland, where, as I well knew, lay a poor riven body, which, for all I knew, might be that of the little maid’s father, silent, shapeless, and for ever at rest.
“Let us go there, then, and wait,” she said, more placably and in more docile fashion than she had yet shown.
So we crossed the short crisp heather, and I walked between her and that which lay off upon our right hand, so that she should not see it.
But the dogs Ashie and Gray were almost too much for me. For they had gone straight to the body of the slain man, and Ashie, ill-conditioned brute, sat him down as a dog does when he bays the moon, and, stretching out his neck and head towards the sky, he gave vent to his feelings in a long howl of agony. Gray snuffed at the body, but contented herself with a sharp occasional snarl of angry protest.
“What is that the dogs have found over there?” said the little maid, looking round me.
“Some dead sheep or other; there are many of them about,” I answered, with shameless mendacity.
“Have your Bennan sheep brown coats?” she asked, innocently enough.
I looked and saw that the homespun of the man’s attire was plain to be seen. “My father has been here before me, and has cast his mantle over the sheep to keep the body from the sun and the flies.”
For which lie the Lord will, I trust, pardon me, considering the necessity and that I was but a lad.
At any rate the maid was satisfied, and we took our way to the northern edge of the Bennan top.
MY SISTER ANNA
Wending our way through the tangle of brown morass and grey boulder, we arrived, the little maid and I, at the extremity of the spur which looks towards the north. Immediately beneath us, already filling in with the oozy peat, I saw the ploughing steps of the successful fugitive, where he had leaped and slid down the soft mossy slopes. There to the right was the harder path by which the dragoons had led their horses, jibbing and stumbling as they went. But all were now passed away, and the landscape from verge to verge was bare and empty save for a few scarlet dots bobbing and weaving athwart one another down on the lake-shore, as the soldiers drew near their camp. Even the clamorous peewits had returned, and were already sweeping and complaining foolishly overhead, doubtless telling each other the tale of how the noise and white-blowing smoke had frightened them from their eggs among the heather.
The little lass stood awhile and gazed about her.
“Certainly my father will see me now,” she said, cheerfully enough; “I am sure he will be looking, and then he will know that all is well when his little girl is here.”
And she looked as if she were ready to protect Alexander Gordon of Earlstoun against Lag and all his troopers. But after a little I saw an anxious look steal over her face.
“He is not coming. He does not see his little Mary!” she said, wistfully.
Then she ran to the top of the highest knoll, and taking off her red cloak she waved it, crying out, “Father, father, it is I – little Mary! Do not be afraid!”
A pair of screeching wildfowl swooped indignantly nearer, but no other voice replied. I feared that she might insist upon examining that which lay under the brown coat, for that it covered either her father or one of her kinsfolk I was well persuaded. The Bennan top had been without doubt the hiding-place of many besides Alexander Gordon. But at this time none were sought for in the Glenkens save the man upon whose head, because of the late plot anent the King’s life, there was set so great a price. And, moreover, had the lady of Earlstoun not sent her daughter to that very place with provender, as being the more likely to win through to her husband unharmed and unsuspected?
Suddenly Mary burst into tears.
“I can not find him!” she cried; “and he will be so hungry, and think that his little girl dared not come to find him! Besides, all the oaten cakes that were baked but this morning will be quite spoiled!”
I tried my best to comfort her, but she would not let me so much as touch her. And, being an ignorant landward lad, I could not find the fitting words wherewithal to speak to a maiden gently bred like the little Mary Gordon.
At last, however, she dried her tears. “Let us leave the cakes here, and take the basket and go our way back again. For the lady my mother will be weary with waiting for me so long by the waterside.”
So we two went down the hill again very sadly, and as we passed by she cast her eyes curiously over at the poor lad who lay so still on his face in the soft lair of the peat moss.
“That is a strange sheep,” she said; “it looks more like a man lying asleep.”
So, passing by, we went down both of us together, and as we pushed a way through the bracken towards our own house of Ardarroch, I saw my sister Anna come up the burn-side among the light flickering shadows of the birch and alder bushes. And when we came nearer to her I saw that she, too, had been weeping. Now this also went to my heart with a heavy sense of the beginning of unknown troubles. Ever since, from my sweet sleep of security on the hillside I had been suddenly flung into the midst of a troublous sea, there seemed no end to the griefs, like waves that press behind each other rank behind rank to the horizon.
“Has my father been taken?” I cried anxiously to Anna, as she came near. For that was our chief household fear at that time.
“Nay,” she answered, standing still to look in astonishment at my little companion; “but there are soldiers in the house, and they have turned everything this way and that to seek for him, and have also dealt roughly with my mother.”
Hearing which, I was for running down to help, but Anna bade me to bide where I was. I would only do harm, she said. She had been sent to keep Hob and David on the hill, my mother being well assured that the soldiers would do her no harm for all the roughness of their talk.
“And who is this?” said Anna, looking kindly down at little Mary Gordon.
I expected the little maid to answer as high and quick as she had done to me; but she stood fixed and intent awhile upon Anna, and then she went directly up to her and put her hand into that of my sister. There was ever, indeed, that about Anna which drew all children to her. And now the proud daughter of the laird of Earlstoun went to her as readily as a tottering cottar’s bairn.
“You will take me to my mother, will you not?” she said, nestling contentedly with her cheek against Anna’s homespun kirtle.
“That will I, and blithely, lambie!” my sister answered, heartily, “if ye will tell me who the mother o’ ye may be, and where she bides.”
But when I had told her, I saw Anna look suddenly blank, and the colour fade from her face.
“By the waterside – your mother!” she said, with a kind of fluttering uncertain apprehension in her voice. For my sister Anna’s voice was like a stringed instrument, quavering and thrilling to the least thought of her heart.
We three turned to go down the hill to the waterside. I caught Anna’s eye, and, observing by its signalling that she wished to speak with me apart, I allowed the little girl to precede us on the winding sheep track, which was all the path leading up the Bennan side.
“The soldiers had taken her mother away with them in the boat to question her. They suspected that she came to the water foot to meet her husband,” whispered Anna. “You must take the little one back to her folk – or else, if you are afraid to venture, Hob or David will go instead of you.”
“Neither Hob nor yet David shall get the chance; I will go myself,” cried I, firing at the notion that my two brothers could carry out such a commission better than I. “If you, Anna, will look to the sheep, I will leave Ashie and Gray behind to help you.”
“I will indeed gladly stay and see that all is kept in due order,” said Anna, and I knew that she was as good a herd as any one, and that when she undertook a thing she would surely perform it.
So I took leave of my sister, and she gave me some pieces of barley bread and also a few savoury crumblings she had discovered in the pocket which was swung on the outside of her short kirtle.
“I will not go with you; I want to stay with this nice great girl, or else go home to my mother!” cried the imperious little maid, stamping her foot and shaking her yellow curls vehemently as if she cherished a spite against me.
“Your mother has been obliged to go home without you,” I said, “but she has left word that you are to come with me, and I will take you home.”
“I do not believe it; you are nothing but a little, ragged, silly boy,” she answered, shaking her finger contemptuously at me.
I appealed to Anna.
“Is it not so?” I said.
Anna turned gently to little Mary Gordon.
“Go with him, childie,” she said; “your mother was compelled to go away and leave you. My brother will bring you safe. Quintin is a good lad and will take great care of you. Let him take you home, will you not?”
And the child looked long up into the deep, untroubled brown eyes of Anna, my sister, and was vanquished.
“I will go with the boy anywhere if you bid me,” she said.
(Note and Addition by me, Hob MacClellan,Elder Brother of the Writer.)
It chances that I, Hob MacClellan, have come into possession of the papers of Quintin, my brother, and also of many interesting documents that belonged to him. In time I shall leave them to his son Quintin, but ere they pass out of my hands it is laid upon me that I insert sundry observes upon them for the better understanding of what Quintin hath written.
For this brother of mine, whom for love I served forty years as a thirled labourer serves for his meat, whom I kept from a thousand dangers, whom I guided as a mother doth a bairn that learns to walk, holding it by the coaties behind – this Quintin whose fame is in all Scotland was a man too wrapt and godly to be well able to take care of the things of the moment, and all his life needed one to be in tendance upon him, and to see that all went forward as it ought.
My mother and his, a shrewd woman of the borderside stock, Elliot her name, used often to say, “Hob, keep a firm catch o’ Quintin. For though he may stir up the world and have the care of all the churches, yet like a bairn he needs one to draw tight the buckle of his trews, and see that he goes not to preach in the habit in which he rose from bed!”
So it came about that I, having no clearness as to leaving him to himself, abode mostly near him, keeping the door of his chamber, as it were, on all the great occasions of his life. And Quintin my brother, though we differed ofttimes, ever paid me in love and the bond of an unbroken brotherhood. Also what he had I had, hand and siller, bite or sup, poverty and riches. I tilled his glebe. I brought home his kye and milked them. I stood at his back in the day of calamity. I was his groom when first he married so strangely. Yet through all I abode plain dour Hob MacClellan, to all the parish and wider far – the “minister’s brother!”
And there are folk who have held me stupid because that ordinarily I found little to say, or dull in that I mixed not with their pothouse jollity, or proud because I could be better company to myself than a score of clattering fools.
Not that I despised the friendly converse in the green loaning when a man meets a man, or a man a bonny lass, nor yet the merry meeting about the ingle in the heartsome forenights, for I own that at one time my mind lay greatly that way.
I have loved good sound jocund mirth all my days; aye, and often learned that which proved of great advantage at such times, just because folk had no fear, but would speak freely before me. Whereas, so soon as Quintin came in, there passed a hush over every face and a silence of constraint fell upon them, as if he had fetched the two tables of stone with all the Ten Commandments upon them in his coat-tail pocket.скачать книгу бесплатно
страницы: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18