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Chapter 28

THE HILL BEFORE DARKNESS FELL--SCENE OF THE IMPENDING CATASTROPHE.


"You are better now?" I heard Gavin ask, presently.

He thought that having been taken ill suddenly I had waved to him
for help because he chanced to be near. With all my wits about me
I might have left him in that belief, for rather would I have
deceived him than had him wonder why his welfare seemed so vital
to me. But I, who thought the capacity for being taken aback had
gone from me, clung to his arm and thanked God audibly that he
still lived. He did not tell me then how my agitation puzzled him,
but led me kindly to the hill, where we could talk without
listeners. By the time we reached it I was again wary, and I had
told him what had brought me to Thrums, without mentioning how the
story of his death reached my ears, or through whom.

"Mr. McKenzie," he said, interrupting me, "galloped all the way
from the Spittal on the same errand. However, no one has been hurt
much, except the piper himself."

Then he told me how the rumor arose.

"You know of the incident at the Spittal, and that Campbell
marched off in high dudgeon? I understand that he spoke to no one
between the Spittal and Thrums, but by the time he arrived here he
was more communicative; yes, and thirstier. He was treated to
drink in several public-houses by persons who wanted to hear his
story, and by-and-by he began to drop hints of knowing something
against the earl's bride. Do you know Rob Dow?"

"Yes," I answered, "and what you have done for him."

"Ah, sir!" he said, sighing, "for a long time I thought I was to
be God's instrument in making a better man of Rob, but my power
over him went long ago. Ten short months of the ministry takes
some of the vanity out of a man."

Looking sideways at him I was startled by the unnatural brightness
of his eyes. Unconsciously he had acquired the habit of pressing
his teeth together in the pauses of his talk, shutting them on
some woe that would proclaim itself, as men do who keep their
misery to themselves.

"A few hours ago," he went on, "I heard Rob's voice in altercation
as I passed the Bull tavern, and I had, a feeling that if I failed
with him so should I fail always throughout my ministry. I walked
into the public-house, and stopped at the door of a room in which
Dow and the piper were sitting drinking. I heard Rob saying,
fiercely, 'If what you say about her is true, Highlandman, she's
the woman I've been looking for this half year and mair; what is
she like?' I guessed, from what I had been told of the piper, that
they were speaking of the earl's bride; but Rob saw me and came to
an abrupt stop, saying to his companion, 'Dinna say another word
about her afore the minister.' Rob would have come away at once in
answer to my appeal, but the piper was drunk and would not be
silenced. 'I'll tell the minister about her, too,' he began. 'You
dinna ken what you're doing," Rob roared, and then, as if to save
my ears from scandal at any cost, he struck Campbell a heavy blow
on the mouth. I tried to intercept the blow, with the result that
I fell, and then some one ran out of the tavern crying, 'He's
killed!' The piper had been stunned, but the story went abroad
that he had stabbed me for interfering with him. That is really
all. Nothing, as you know, can overtake an untruth if it has a
minute's start."

"Where is Campbell now?"

"Sleeping off the effect of the blow: but Dow has fled. He was
terrified at the shouts of murder, and ran off up the West Town
end. The doctor's dogcart was standing at a door there and Rob
jumped into it and drove off. They did not chase him far, because
he is sure to hear the truth soon, and then, doubtless, he will
come back."

Though in a few hours we were to wonder at our denseness, neither
Gavin nor I saw why Dow had struck the Highlander down rather than
let him tell his story in the minister's presence. One moment's
suspicion would have lit our way to the whole truth, but of the
spring to all Rob's behavior in the past eight months we were
ignorant, and so to Gavin the Bull had only been the scene of a
drunken brawl, while I forgot to think in the joy of finding him
alive.

"I have a prayer-meeting for rain presently," Gavin said, breaking
a picture that had just appeared unpleasantly before me of Babbie
still in agony at Nanny's, "but before I leave you tell me why
this rumor caused you such distress."

The question troubled me, and I tried to avoid it. Crossing the
hill we had by this time drawn near a hollow called the Toad's-
hole, then gay and noisy with a caravan of gypsies. They were
those same wild Lindsays, for whom Gavin had searched Caddam one
eventful night, and as I saw them crowding round their king, a man
well known to me, I guessed what they were at.

"Mr. Dishart," I said abruptly, "would you like to see a gypsy
marriage? One is taking place there just now. That big fellow is
the king, and he is about to marry two of his people over the
tongs. The ceremony will not detain us five minutes, though the
rejoicings will go on all night."

I have been present at more than one gypsy wedding in my time, and
at the wild, weird orgies that followed them, but what is
interesting to such as I may not be for a minister's eyes, and,
frowning at my proposal, Gavin turned his back upon the Toad's-
hole. Then, as we recrossed the hill, to get away from the din of
the camp, I pointed out to him that the report of his, death had
brought McKenzie to Thrums, as well as me.

"As soon as McKenzie heard I was not dead," he answered, "he
galloped off to the Spittal, without ever seeing me. I suppose he
posted back to be in time for the night's rejoicings there. So you
see, it was no solicitude for me that brought him. He came because
a servant at the Spittal was supposed to have done the deed."

"Well, Mr. Dishart," I had to say, "why should deny that I have a
warm regard for you? You have done brave work in our town."

"It has been little," he replied. "With God's help it will be more
in future."

He meant that he had given time to his sad love affair that he
owed to his people. Of seeing Babbit again I saw that he had given
up hope. Instead of repining, he was devoting his whole soul to
God's work. I was proud of him, and yet I grieved, for I could no
think that God wanted him to bury his youth so soon.

"I had thought," he confessed to me, "that you were one of those
who did not like my preaching."

"You were mistaken," I said, gravely. I dared not tell him that,
except his mother, none would have saw under him so eagerly as I.

"Nevertheless," he said, "you were a member of the Auld Licht
church in Mr. Carfrae's time, and you left it when I came."

"I heard your first sermon," I said.

"Ah," he replied. "I had not been long in Thrums before I
discovered that if I took tea with any of my congregation and
declined a second cup, they thought it a reflection on their
brewing."

"You must not look upon my absence in that light," was all I could
say. "There are reasons why I cannot come."

He did not press me further, thinking I meant that the distance
was too great, though frailer folk than I walked twenty miles to
hear him. We might have parted thus had we not wandered by chance
to the very spot where I had met him and Babbie. There is a seat
there now for those who lose their breath on the climb up, and so
I have two reasons nowadays for not passing the place by.

We read each other's thoughts, and Gavin said calmly, "I have not
seen her since that night. She disappeared as into a grave."

How could I answer when I knew that Babbie was dying for want of
him, not half a mile away?

"You seemed to understand everything that night," he went on; "or
if you did not, your thoughts were very generous to me."

In my sorrow for him I did not notice that we were moving on
again, this time in the direction of Windyghoul.

"She was only a gypsy girl," he said, abruptly, and I nodded. "But
I hoped," he continued," that she would be my wife."

"I understood that," I said.

"There was nothing monstrous to you," he asked, looking me in the
face, "in a minister's marrying a gypsy?"

I own that if I had loved a girl, however far below or above me in
degree, I would have married her had she been willing to take me.
But to Gavin I only answered, "These are matters a man must decide
for himself."

"I had decided for myself," he said, emphatically.

"Yet," I said, wanting him to talk to me of Margaret, "in such a
case one might have others to consider besides himself."

"A man's marriage," he answered, "is his own affair, I would have
brooked no interference from my congregation."

I thought, "There is some obstinacy left in him still;" but aloud
I said, "It was of your mother I was thinking."

"She would have taken Babbie to her heart," he said, with the fond
conviction of a lover.

I doubted it, but I only asked, "Your mother knows nothing of
her?"

"Nothing," he rejoined. "It would be cruelty to tell my mother of
her now that she is gone."

Gavin's calmness had left him, and he was striding quickly nearer
to Windyghoul. I was in dread lest he should see the Egyptian at
Nanny's door, yet to have turned him in another direction might
have roused his suspicions. When we were within a hundred yards of
the mudhouse, I knew that there was no Babbie in sight. We halved
the distance and then I saw her at the open window. Gavin's eyes
were on the ground, but she saw him. I held my breath, fearing
that she would run out to him.

"You have never seen her since that night?" Gavin asked me,
without hope in his voice.

Had he been less hopeless he would have wondered why I did not
reply immediately. I was looking covertly at the mudhouse, of
which we were now within a few yards. Babbie's face had gone from
the window, and. the door remained shut. That she could hear every
word we uttered now, I could not doubt. But she was hiding from
the man for whom her soul longed. She was sacrificing herself for
him.

"Never," I answered, notwithstanding my pity of the brave girl,
and then while I was shaking lest he should go in to visit Nanny,
I heard the echo of the Auld Licht bell.

"That calls me to the meeting for rain," Gavin said, bidding me
good-night. I had acted for Margaret, and yet I had hardly the
effrontery to take his hand. I suppose he saw sympathy in my face,
for suddenly the cry broke from him--

"If I could only know that nothing evil had befallen her!"

Babbie heard him and could not restrain a heartbreaking sob.

"What was that?" he said, starting.

A moment I waited, to let her show herself if she chose. But the
mudhouse was silent again.

"It was some boy in the wood," I answered.

"Good-bye," he said, trying to smile.

Had I let him go, here would have been the end of his love story,
but that piteous smile unmanned me, and I could not keep the words
back.

"She is in Nanny's house," I cried.

In another moment these two were together for weal or woe, and I
had set off dizzily for the school-house, feeling now that I had
been false to Margaret, and again exulting in what I had done. By
and by the bell stopped, and Gavin and Babbie regarded it as
little as I heeded the burns now crossing the glen road noisily at
places that had been dry two hours before.


James M. Barrie