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Chapter 4

FIRST COMING OF THE EGYPTIAN WOMAN.


A learned man says in a book, otherwise beautiful with truth, that
villages are family groups. To him Thrums would only be a village,
though town is the word we have ever used, and this is not true of
it. Doubtless we have interests in common, from which a place so
near (but the road is heavy) as Tilliedrum is shut out, and we
have an individuality of our own too, as if, like our red houses,
we came from a quarry that supplies no other place. But we are not
one family. In the old days, those of us who were of the Tenements
seldom wandered to the Croft head, and if we did go there we saw
men to whom we could not always give a name. To flit from the
Tanage brae to Haggart's road was to change one's friends. A kirk-
wynd weaver might kill his swine and Tillyloss not know of it
until boys ran westward hitting each other with the bladders. Only
the voice of the dulsemen could be heard all over Thrums at once.
Thus even in a small place but a few outstanding persons are known
to everybody.

In eight days Gavin's figure was more familiar in Thrums than many
that had grown bent in it. He had already been twice to the
cemetery, for a minister only reaches his new charge in time to
attend a funeral. Though short of stature he cast a great shadow.
He was so full of his duties, Jean said, that though he pulled to
the door as he left the manse, he had passed the currant bushes
before it snecked. He darted through courts, and invented ways
into awkward houses. If you did not look up quickly he was round
the corner. His visiting exhausted him only less than his zeal in
the pulpit, from which, according to report, he staggered damp
with perspiration to the vestry, where Hendry Munn wrung him like
a wet cloth. A deaf lady, celebrated for giving out her washing,
compelled him to hold her trumpet until she had peered into all
his crannies, with the Shorter Catechism for a lantern. Janet
Dundas told him, in answer to his knock, that she could not abide
him, but she changed her mind when he said her garden was quite a
show. The wives who expected a visit scrubbed their floors for
him, cleaned out their presses for him, put diamond socks on their
bairns for him, rubbed their hearthstones blue for him, and even
tidied up the garret for him, and triumphed over the neighbours
whose houses he passed by. For Gavin blundered occasionally by
inadvertence, as when he gave dear old Betty Davie occasion to say
bitterly--

"Ou ay, you can sail by my door and gang to Easie's, but I'm
thinking you would stop at mine too if I had a brass handle on't."

So passed the first four weeks, and then came the fateful night of
the seventeenth of October, and with it the strange woman. Family
worship at the manse was over and Gavin was talking to his mother,
who never crossed the threshold save to go to church (though her
activity at home was among the marvels Jean sometimes slipped down
to the Tenements to announce). when Wearyworld the policeman came
to the door "with Rob Dow's compliments, and if you're no wi' me
by ten o'clock I'm to break out again." Gavin knew what this
meant, and at once set off for Rob's.

"You'll let me gang a bit wi' you," the policeman entreated, "for
till Rob sent me on this errand not a soul has spoken to me the
day; ay, mony a ane hae I spoken to, but not a man, woman, nor
bairn would fling me a word."

"I often meant to ask you," Gavin said as they went along the
Tenements, which smelled at that hour of roasted potatoes, "why
you are so unpopular."

"It's because I'm police. I'm the first ane that has ever been in
Thrums, and the very folk that appointed me at a crown a week
looks upon me as a disgraced man for accepting. It's Gospel that
my ain wife is short wi' me when I've on my uniform, though weel
she kens that I would rather hae stuck to the loom if I hadna
ha'en sic a queer richt leg. Nobody feels the shame o' my position
as I do mysel', but this is a town without pity."

"It should be a consolation to you that you are discharging useful
duties."

"But I'm no. I'm doing harm. There's Charles Dickson says that the
very sicht o' my uniform rouses his dander so muckle that it makes
him break windows, though a peaceably-disposed man till I was
appointed. And what's the use o' their haeing a policeman when
they winna come to the lock-up after I lay hands on them?"

"Do they say they won't come?"

"Say? Catch them saying onything! They just gie me a wap into the
gutters. If they would speak I wouldna complain, for I'm nat'rally
the sociablest man in Thrums."

"Rob, however, had spoken to you."

"Because he had need o' me. That was ay Rob's way, converted or no
converted. When he was blind drunk he would order me to see him
safe hame, but would he crack wi' me? Na, na."

Wearyworld, who was so called because of his forlorn way of
muttering, "It's a weary warld, and nobody bides in't," as he went
his melancholy rounds, sighed like one about to cry, and Gavin
changed the subject.

"Is the watch for the soldiers still kept up?" he asked.

"It is, but the watchers winna let me in aside them. I'll let you
see that for yoursel' at me head o' the Roods, for they watch
there in the auld windmill."

Most of the Thrums lights were already out, and that in the
windmill disappeared as footsteps were heard.

"You're desperate characters," the policeman cried, but got no
answer. He changed his tactics.

"A fine nicht for the time o' year," he cried. No answer.

"But I wouldna wonder," he shouted, "though we had rain afore
morning." No answer.

"Surely you could gie me a word frae ahint the door. You're doing
an onlawful thing, but I dinna ken wha you are."

"You'll swear to that?" some one asked gruffly.

"I swear to it, Peter."

Wearyworld tried another six remarks in vain.

"Ay," he said to the minister, "that's what it is to be an
onpopular man. And now I'll hae to turn back, for the very anes
that winna let me join them would be the first to complain if I
gaed out o' bounds."

Gavin found Dow at New Zealand, a hamlet of mud houses, whose
tenants could be seen on any Sabbath morning washing themselves in
the burn that trickled hard by. Rob's son, Micah, was asleep at
the door, but he brightened when he saw who was shaking him.

"My father put me out," he explained, "because he's daft for the
drink, and was fleid he would curse me. He hasna cursed me," Micah
added, proudly, "for an aught days come Sabbath. Hearken to him at
his loom. He daurna take his feet off the treadles for fear o'
running straucht to the drink."

Gavin went in. The loom, and two stools, the one four-footed and
the other a buffet, were Rob's most conspicuous furniture. A
shaving-strap hung on the wall. The fire was out, but the trunk of
a tree, charred at one end, showed how he heated his house. He
made a fire of peat, and on it placed one end of a tree trunk that
might be six feet long. As the tree burned away it was pushed
further into the fireplace, and a roaring fire could always be got
by kicking pieces of the smouldering wood and blowing them into
flame with the bellows. When Rob saw the minister he groaned
relief and left his loom. He had been weaving, his teeth clenched,
his eyes on fire, for seven hours.

"I wasna fleid," little Micah said to the neighbours afterwards,
"to gang in wi' the minister. He's a fine man that. He didna ca'
my father names. Na, he said, 'You're a brave fellow, Rob,' and he
took my father's hand, he did. My father was shaking after his
fecht wi' the drink, and, says he. 'Mr. Dishart,' he says, 'if
you'll let me break out nows and nans, I could, bide straucht
atween times, but I canna keep sober if I hinna a drink to look
forrit to.' Ay, my father prigged sair to get one fou day in the
month, and he said, 'Syne if I die sudden, there's thirty chances
to one that I gang to heaven, so it's worth risking.' But Mr.
Dishart wouldna hear o't, and he cries, 'No, by God,' he cries,
'we'll wrestle wi' the devil till we throttle him,' and down him
and my father gaed on their knees.

"The minister prayed a lang time till my father said his hunger
for the drink was gone, 'but', he says, 'it swells up in me o' a
sudden aye, and it may be back afore you're hame.' 'Then come to
me at once,' says Mr. Dishart; but my father says, 'Na, for it
would haul me into the public-house as if it had me at the end o'
a rope, but I'll send the laddie."

"You saw my father crying the minister back? It was to gie him twa
pound, and, says my father, 'God helping me,' he says, 'I'll droon
mysel in the dam rather than let the drink master me, but in case
it should get haud o' me and I should die drunk, it would be a
michty gratification to me to ken that you had the siller to bury
me respectable without ony help frae the poor's rates.' The
minister wasna for taking it at first, but he took it when he saw
how earnest my father was. Ay, he's a noble man. After he gaed awa
my father made me learn the names o' the apostles frae Luke sixth,
and he says to me, 'Miss out Bartholomew,' he says, 'for he did
little, and put Gavin Dishart in his place.'"

Feeling as old as he sometimes tried to look, Gavin turned
homeward. Margaret was already listening for him. You may be sure
she knew his step. I think our steps vary as much as the human
face. My book-shelves were made by a blind man who could identify
by their steps nearly all who passed his window. Yet he has
admitted to me that he could not tell wherein my steps differed
from others; and this I believe, though rejecting his boast that
he could distinguish a minister's step from a doctor's, and even
tell to which denomination the minister belonged.

I have sometimes asked myself what would have been Gavin's future
had he gone straight home that night from Dow's. He would
doubtless have seen the Egyptian before morning broke, but she
would not have come upon him like a witch. There are, I dare say,
many lovers who would never have been drawn to each other had they
met for the first time, as, say, they met the second time. But
such dreaming is to no purpose. Gavin met Sanders Webster, the
mole-catcher, and was persuaded by him to go home by Caddam Wood.

Gavin took the path to Caddam, because Sanders told him the Wild
Lindsays were there, a gypsy family that threatened the farmers by
day and danced devilishly, it was said, at night. The little
minister knew them by repute as a race of giants, and that not
many persons would have cared to face them alone at midnight; but
he was feeling as one wound up to heavy duties, and meant to
admonish them severely.

Sanders, an old man who lived with his sister Nanny on the edge of
the wood, went with him, and for a time both were silent. But
Sanders had something to say.

"Was you ever at the Spittal, Mr. Dishart?" he asked.

"Lord Rintoul's house at the top of Glen Quharity? No."

"Hae you ever looked on a lord?"

"No."

"Or on an auld lord's young leddyship? I have."

"What is she?"

"You surely ken that Rintoul's auld, and is to be married on a
young leddyship. She's no' a leddyship yet, but they're to be
married soon, so I may say I've seen a leddyship. Ay, an
impressive sicht. It was yestreen."

"Is there a great difference in their ages?"

"As muckle as atween auld Peter Spens and his wife, wha was
saxteen when he was saxty, and she was playing at dumps in the
street when her man was waiting for her to make his porridge. Ay,
sic a differ doesna suit wi' common folk, but of course earls can
please themsels. Rintoul's so fond o' the leddyship 'at is to be,
that when she was at the school in Edinbury he wrote to her ilka
day. Kaytherine Crummie telled me that, and she says aince you're
used to it, writing letters is as easy as skinning moles. I dinna
ken what they can write sic a heap about, but I daur say he gies
her his views on the Chartist agitation and the potato disease,
and she'll write back about the romantic sichts o' Edinbury and
the sermons o' the grand preachers she hears. Sal, though, thae
grand folk has no religion to speak o', for they're a' English
kirk. You're no' speiring what her leddyship said to me?"

"What did she say?"

"Weel, you see, there was a dancing ball on, and Kaytherine
Crummie took me to a window whaur I could stand on a flower-pot
and watch the critturs whirling round in the ball like teetotums.
What's mair, she pointed out the leddyship that's to be to me, and
I just glowered at her, for thinks I, 'Take your fill, Sanders,
and whaur there's lords and leddyships, dinna waste a minute on
colonels and honourable misses and sic like dirt.' Ay, but what
wi' my een blinking at the blaze o' candles, I lost sicht o' her
till all at aince somebody says at my lug, 'Well, my man, and who
is the prettiest lady in the room?' Mr. Dishart, it was her
leddyship. She looked like a star."

"And what did you do?"

"The first thing I did was to fall aff the flower-pot; but syne I
came to, and says I, wi' a polite smirk, 'I'm thinking your
leddyship,' says I, 'as you're the bonniest yourself.'"

"I see you are a cute man, Sanders.'"

"Ay, but that's no' a'. She lauched in a pleased way and tapped me
wi' her fan, and says she, 'Why do you think me the prettiest?' I
dinna deny but what that staggered me, but I thocht a minute, and
took a look at the other dancers again, and syne I says, michty
sly like, 'The other leddies,' I says, 'has sic sma' feet.'"

Sanders stopped here and looked doubtingly at Gavin.

"I canna make up my mind," he said, "whether she liked that, for
she rapped my knuckles wi' her fan fell sair, and aff she gaed.
Ay, I consulted Tammas Haggart about it, and he says, 'The flirty
crittur,' he says. What would you say, Mr. Dishart?"

Gavin managed to escape without giving an answer, for here their
roads separated. He did not find the Wild Lindsays, however.
Children of whim, of prodigious strength while in the open, but
destined to wither quickly in the hot air of towns, they had gone
from Caddam, leaving nothing of themselves behind but a black mark
burned by their fires into the ground. Thus they branded the earth
through many counties until some hour when the spirit of wandering
again fell on them, and they forsook their hearths with as little
compunction as the bird leaves its nest.

Gavin had walked quickly, and he now stood silently in the wood,
his hat in his hand. In the moonlight the grass seemed tipped with
hoar frost. Most of the beeches were already bare, but the shoots,
clustering round them, like children at their mother's skirts,
still retained their leaves red and brown. Among the pines these
leaves were as incongruous as a wedding-dress at a funeral. Gavin
was standing on grass, but there were patches of heather within
sight, and broom, and the leaf of the blaeberry. Where the beeches
had drawn up the earth with them as they grew, their roots ran
this way and that, slippery to the feet and looking like
disinterred bones. A squirrel appeared suddenly on the charred
ground, looked doubtfully at Gavin to see if he was growing there,
and then glided up a tree, where it sat eyeing him, and forgetting
to conceal its shadow. Caddam was very still. At long intervals
came from far away the whack of an axe on wood. Gavin was in a
world by himself, and this might be someone breaking into it.

The mystery of woods by moonlight thrilled the little minister.
His eyes rested on the shining roots, and he remembered what had
been told him of the legend of Caddam, how once on a time it was a
mighty wood, and a maiden most beautiful stood on its confines,
panting and afraid, for a wicked man pursued her; how he drew
near, and she ran a little way into the wood, and he followed her,
and she still ran, and still he followed, until both were for ever
lost, and the bones of her pursuer lie beneath a beech, but the
lady may still be heard singing in the woods if the night be fine,
for then she is a glad spirit, but weeping when there is wild
wind, for then she is but a mortal seeking a way out of the wood.

The squirrel slid down the fir and was gone. The axe's blows
ceased. Nothing that moved was in sight. The wind that has its
nest in trees was circling around with many voices, that never
rose above a whisper, and were often but the echo of a sigh. Gavin
was in the Caddam of past days, where the beautiful maiden wanders
ever, waiting for him who is so pure that he may find her. He will
wander over the tree-tops looking for her, with the moon for his
lamp, and some night he will hear her singing. The little minister
drew a deep breath, and his foot snapped a brittle twig. Then he
remembered who and where he was, and stooped to pick up his staff.
But he did not pick it up, for as his fingers were closing on it
the lady began to sing.

For perhaps a minute Gavin stood stock still, like an intruder.
Then he ran towards the singing, which seemed to come from Windy
ghoul, a straight road through Caddam that farmers use in summer,
but leave in the back end of the year to leaves and pools. In
Windyghoul there is either no wind or so much that it rushes down
the sieve like an army, entering with a shriek of terror, and
escaping with a derisive howl. The moon was crossing the avenue.
But Gavin only saw the singer.

She was still fifty yards away, sometimes singing gleefully, and
again letting her body sway lightly as she came dancing up
Windyghoul. Soon she was within a few feet of the little minister,
to whom singing, except when out of tune, was a suspicious thing,
and dancing a device of the devil. His arm went out wrathfully,
and his intention was to pronounce sentence on this woman.

But she passed, unconscious of his presence, and he had not moved
nor spoken. Though really of the average height, she was a little
thing to the eyes of Gavin, who always felt tall and stout except
when he looked down. The grace of her swaying figure was a new

James M. Barrie