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Chapter 31

VARIOUS BODIES CONVERGING ON THE HILL.


It would be coming on for a quarter-past nine, and a misty night,
when I reached the school-house, and I was so weary of mind and
body that I sat down without taking off my bonnet. I had left the
door open, and I remember listlessly watching the wind making a
target of my candle, but never taking a sufficiently big breath to
do more than frighten it. From this lethargy I was roused by the
sound of wheels.

In the daytime our glen road leads to many parts, but in the night
only to the doctor's. Then the gallop of a horse makes farmers
start up in bed and cry, "Who's ill?" I went to my door and
listened to the trap coming swiftly down the lonely glen, but I
could not see it, for there was a trailing scarf of mist between
the school-house and the road. Presently I heard the swish of the
wheels in water, and so learned that they were crossing the ford
to come to me. I had been unstrung by the events of the evening,
and fear at once pressed thick upon me that this might be a sequel
to them, as indeed it was.

While still out of sight the trap stopped, and I heard some one
jump from it. Then came this conversation, as distinct as though
it had been spoken into my ear:

"Can you see the school-house now, McKenzie?"

"I am groping for it, Rintoul. The mist seems to have made off
with the path."

"Where are you, McKenzie? I have lost sight of you."

It was but a ribbon of mist, and as these words were spoken
McKenzie broke through it. I saw him, though to him I was only a
stone at my door.

"I have found the house, Rintoul," he shouted, "and there is a
light in it, so that the fellow has doubtless returned."

"Then wait a moment for me."

"Stay where you are, Rintoul, I entreat you, and leave him to me.
He may recognize you."

"No, no, McKenzie, I am sure he never saw me before. I insist on
accompanying you."

"Your excitement, Rintoul, will betray you. Let me go alone. I can
question him without rousing his suspicions. Remember, she is only
a gypsy to him."

"He will learn nothing from me. I am quite calm now."

"Rintoul, I warn you your manner will betray you, and to-morrow it
will be roared through the countryside that your bride ran away
from the Spittal in a gypsy dress, and had to be brought back by
force."

The altercation may have lasted another minute, but the suddenness
with which I learned Babbie's secret had left my ears incapable of
learning more. I daresay the two men started when they found me at
my door, but they did not remember, as few do remember who have
the noisy day to forget it in, how far the voice carries in the
night.

They came as suddenly on me as I on them, for though they had
given unintentional notice of their approach, I had lost sight of
the speakers in their amazing words. Only a moment did young
McKenzie's anxiety to be spokesman give me to regard Lord Rintoul.
I saw that he was a thin man and tall, straight in the figure, but
his head began to sink into his shoulders and not very steady on
them. His teeth had grip of his under-lip, as if this was a method
of controlling his agitation, and he was opening and shutting his
hands restlessly. He had a dog with him which I was to meet again.

"Well met, Mr. Ogilvy," said McKenzie, who knew me slightly,
having once acted as judge at a cock-fight in the school-house.
"We were afraid we should have to rouse you."

"You will step inside?" I asked awkwardly, and while I spoke I was
wondering how long it would be before the earl's excitement broke
out.

"It is not necessary," McKenzie answered hurriedly. "My friend and
I (this is Mr. McClure) have been caught in the mist without a
lamp, and we thought you could perhaps favor us with one."

"Unfortunately I have nothing of the kind," I said, and the state
of mind I was in is shown by my answering seriously.

"Then we must wish you a good-night and manage as best we can," he
said; and then before he could touch, with affected indifference,
on the real object of their visit, the alarmed earl said angrily,
"McKenzie, no more of this."

"No more of this delay, do you mean, McClure?" asked McKenzie, and
then, turning to me said, "By the way, Mr. Ogilvy, I think this is
our second meeting to-night. I met you on the road a few hours ago
with your wife. Or was it your daughter?"

"It was neither, Mr. McKenzie," I answered, with the calmness of
one not yet recovered from a shock. "It was a gypsy girl."

"Where is she now?" cried Rintoul feverishly; but McKenzie,
speaking loudly at the same time, tried to drown his interference
as one obliterates writing by writing over it.

"A strange companion for a schoolmaster," he said. "What became of
her?"

"I left her near Caddam Wood," I replied, "but she is probably not
there now"

"Ah, they are strange creatures, these gypsies!" he said, casting
a warning look at the earl. "Now I wonder where she had been bound
for."

"There is a gypsy encampment on the hill," I answered, though I
cannot say why.

"She is there!" exclaimed Rintoul, and was done with me.

"I daresay," McKenzie said indifferently. "However, it is nothing
to us. Good-night, sir."

The earl had started for the trap, but McKenzie's salute reminded
him of a forgotten courtesy, and, despite his agitation, he came
back to apologize. I admired him for this. Then my thoughtlessness
must needs mar all.

"Good-night, Mr. McKenzie," I said. "Good-night, Lord Rintoul."

I had addressed him by his real name. Never a turnip fell from a
bumping, laden cart, and the driver more unconscious of it, than I
that I had dropped that word. I re-entered the house, but had not
reached my chair when McKenzie's hand fell roughly on me, and I
was swung round.

"Mr. Ogilvy," he said, the more savagely I doubt not because his
passions had been chained so long, "you know more than you would
have us think. Beware, sir, of recognising that gypsy should you
ever see her again in different attire. I advise you to have
forgotten this night when you waken to-morrow morning."

With a menacing gesture he left me, and I sank into a chair, glad
to lose sight of the glowering eyes with which he had pinned me to
the wall. I did not hear the trap cross the ford and renew its
journey. When I looked out next, the night had fallen very dark,
and the glen was so deathly in its drowsiness that I thought not
even the cry of murder could tear its eyes open.

The earl and McKenzie would be some distance still from the hill
when the office-bearers had scoured it in vain for their minister.
The gypsies, now dancing round their fires to music that, on
ordinary occasions, Lang Tammas would have stopped by using his
fists to the glory of God, had seen no minister, they said, and
disbelieved in the existence of the mysterious Egyptian.

"Liars they are to trade," Spens declared to his companions, "but
now and again they speak truth, like a standing clock, and I'm
beginning to think the minister's lassie was invented in the
square."

"Not so," said the precentor, "for we saw her oursel's a short
year syne, and Hendry Munn there allows there's townsfolk that hae
passed her in the glen mair recently."

"I only allowed," Hendry said cautiously, "that some sic talk had
shot up sudden-like in the town. Them that pretends they saw her
says that she joukit quick out o' sicht."

"Ay, and there's another quirk in that," responded the suspicious
precentor.

"I'se uphaud the minister's sitting in the manse in his slippers
by this time," Hendry said.

"I'm willing," replied Whamond, "to gang back and speir, or to
search Caddam next; but let the matter drop I winna, though I ken
you're a' awid to be hame now."

"And naturally," retorted Tosh, "for the nicht's coming on as
black as pick, and by the time we're at Caddam we'll no even see
the trees."

Toward Caddam, nevertheless, they advanced, hearing nothing but a
distant wind and the whish of their legs in the broom.

"Whaur's John Spens?" Hendry said suddenly.

They turned back and found Spens rooted to the ground, as a boy
becomes motionless when he thinks he is within arm's reach of a
nest and the bird sitting on the eggs.

"What do you see, man?" Hendry whispered.

"As sure as death," answered Spens, awe-struck, "I felt a drap o'
rain."

"It's no rain we're here to look for," said the precentor.

"Peter Tosh," cried Spens, "it was a drap! Oh, Peter! how are you
looking at me so queer, Peter, when you should be thanking the
Lord for the promise that's in that drap?"

"Come away," Whamond said, impatiently; "but Spens answered, "No
till I've offered up a prayer for the promise that's in that drap.
Peter Tosh, you've forgotten to take off your bonnet."

"Think twice, John Spens," gasped Tosh, "afore you pray for rain
this nicht."

The others thought him crazy, but he went on, with a catch in his
voice:

"I felt a drap o' rain mysel', just afore it came on dark so
hurried, and my first impulse was to wish that I could carry that
drap about wi' me and look at it. But, John Spens, when I looked
up I saw sic a change running ower the sky that I thocht hell had
taken the place o' heaven, and that there was waterspouts
gathering therein for the drowning o' the world."

"There's no water in hell," the precentor said grimly.

"Genesis ix.," said Spens, "verses 8 to 17. Ay, but, Peter, you've
startled me, and I'm thinking we should be stepping hame. Is that
a licht?"

"It'll be in Nanny Webster's," Hendry said, after they had all
regarded the light.

"I never heard that Nanny needed a candle to licht her to her
bed," the precentor muttered.

"She was awa to meet Sanders the day as he came out o' the
Tilliedrum gaol," Spens remembered, "and I daresay the licht means
they're hame again."

"It's well kent--" began Hendry, and would have recalled his
words.

Hendry Munn, "cried the precentor," if you hae minded onything
that may help us, out wi't."

"I was just minding," the kirk officer answered reluctantly, "that
Nanny allows it's Mr. Dishart that has been keeping her frae the
poorhouse. You canna censure him for that, Tammas."

"Can I no?" retorted Whamond. "What business has he to befriend a
woman that belongs to another denomination? I'll see to the bottom
o' that this nicht. Lads, follow me to Nanny's, and dinna be
surprised if we find baith the minister and the Egyptian there."

They had not advanced many yards when Spens jumped to the side,
crying, "Be wary, that's no the wind; it's a machine!"

Immediately the doctor's dogcart was close to them, with Rob Dow
for its only occupant. He was driving slowly, or Whamond could not
have escaped the horse's hoofs.

"Is that you, Rob Dow?" said the precentor sourly. "I tell you,
you'll be gaoled for stealing the doctor's machine."

"The Hielandman wasna muckle hurt, Rob," Hendry said, more good-
naturedly.

"I ken that," replied Rob, scowling at the four of them. "What are
you doing here on sic a nicht?"

"Do you see anything strange in the nicht, Rob?" Tosh asked
apprehensively.

"It's setting to rain," Dow replied. "I dinna see it, but I feel
it."

"Ay," said Tosh, eagerly, "but will it be a saft, cowdie sweet
ding-on?"

"Let the heavens open if they will," interposed Spens recklessly.
"I would swap the drought for rain, though it comes down in a
sheet as in the year twelve."

"And like a sheet it'll come," replied Dow, "and the deil'll blaw
it about wi' his biggest bellowses."

Tosh shivered, but Whamond shook him roughly, saying--

"Keep your oaths to yoursel', Rob Dow, and tell me, hae you seen
Mr. Dishart?"

"I hinna," Rob answered curtly, preparing to drive on.

"Nor the lassie they call the Egyptian?"

Rob leaped from the dogcart, crying, "What does that mean?"

"Hands off," said the precentor, retreating from him. "It means
that Mr. Dishart neglected the prayer-meeting this nicht to
philander after that heathen woman."

"We're no sure o't, Tammas," remonstrated the kirk officer. Dow
stood quite still. "I believe Rob kens it's true," Hendry added
sadly, "or he would hae flown at your throat, Tammas Whamond, for
saying these words."

Even this did not rouse Dow.

"Rob doesna worship the minister as he used to do," said Spens.

"And what for no?" cried the precentor. "Rob Dow, is it because
you've found out about this woman?"

"You're a pack o' liars," roared Rob, desperately, "and if you say
again that ony wandering hussy has haud o' the minister, I'll let
you see whether I can loup at throats."

"You'll swear by the Book." asked Whamond, relentlessly, "that
you've seen neither o' them this nicht, nor them thegither at any
time?"

"I so swear by the Book," answered poor loyal Rob. "But what makes
you look for Mr. Dishart here?" he demanded, with an uneasy look
at the light in the mudhouse.

"Go hame," replied the precentor, "and deliver up the machine you
stole, and leave this Session to do its duty. John, we maun fathom
the meaning o' that licht."

Dow started, and was probably at that moment within an ace of
felling Whamond.

"I'll come wi' you," he said, hunting in his mind for a better way
of helping Gavin.

They were at Nanny's garden, but in the darkness Whamond could not
find the gate. Rob climbed the paling, and was at once lost sight
of. Then they saw his head obscure the window. They did not,
however, hear the groan that startled Babbie.

"There's nobody there," he said, coming back, "but Nanny and
Sanders. You'll mind Sanders was to be freed the day."

"I'll go in and see Sanders," said Hendry, but the precentor
pulled him back, saying, "You'll do nothing o' the kind, Hendry
Munn; you'll come awa wi' me now to the manse."

"It's mair than me and Peter'll do, then," said Spens, who had
been consulting with the other farmer. "We're gaun as straucht
hame as the darkness 'll let us."

With few more words the Session parted, Spens and Tosh setting off
for their farms, and Hendry accompanying the precentor. No one
will ever know where Dow went. I can fancy him, however, returning
to the wood, and there drawing rein. I can fancy his mind made up
to watch the mudhouse until Gavin and the gypsy separated, and
then pounce upon her. I daresay his whole plot could be condensed
into a sentence, "If she's got rid o' this nicht, we may cheat the
Session yet," But this is mere surmise. All I know is that he
waited near Nanny's house, and by and by heard another trap coming
up Windyghoul. That was just before the ten o'clock bell began to
ring.

James M. Barrie