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Chapter 31

A LETTER TO GOD


"Do you keep a light burning in the Lair?" McLean turned to ask,
forgetting for the moment that it was not their domicile, but his.

"No, there's no light," replied Corp, equally forgetful, but even as he
spoke he stopped so suddenly that Elspeth struck against him. For he had
seen a light. "This is queer!" he cried, and both he and Gavinia fell
back in consternation. McLean pushed forward alone, and was back in a
trice, with a new expression on his face. "Are you playing some trick on
me?" he demanded suspiciously of Tommy. "There is some one there; I
almost ran against a pair of blazing eyes."

"But there's nobody; there can be nobody there," answered Tommy, in a
bewilderment that was obviously unfeigned, "unless--unless--" He looked
at Corp, and the eyes of both finished the sentence. The desolate scene
at Double Dykes, which the meeting with McLean and Miss Ailie had driven
from their minds, again confronted them, and they seemed once more to
hear the whimpering of the Painted Lady's door.

"Unless what?" asked the man, impatiently, but still the two boys only
stared at each other. "The Den's no mous the night," said Corp at last,
in a low voice, and his unspoken fears spread to the womankind, so that
Miss Ailie shuddered and Elspeth gripped Tommy with both hands and
Gavinia whispered, "Let's away hame, we can come back in the daylight."

But McLean chafed and pressed upward, and next moment a girl's voice was
heard, crying: "It is no business of yours; I won't let you touch her."

"Grizel!" exclaimed Tommy and his crew, simultaneously, and they had no
more fear until they were inside the Lair. What they saw had best be
described very briefly. A fire was burning in a corner of the Lair, and
in front of it, partly covered with a sheet, lay the Painted Lady, dead.
Grizel stood beside the body guarding it, her hands clenched, her eyes
very strange. "You sha'n't touch her!" she cried, passionately, and
repeated it many times, as if she had lost the power to leave off, but
Corp crept past her and raised the coverlet.

"She's straikit!" he shouted. "Did you do it yoursel', Grizel? God
behears, she did it hersel'!"

A very long silence it seemed to be after that.

Miss Ailie would have taken the motherless girl to her arms, but first,
at Corp's discovery, she had drawn back in uncontrollable repulsion, and
Grizel, about to go to her, saw it, and turned from her to Tommy. Her
eyes rested on him beseechingly, with a look he saw only once again in
them until she was a woman, but his first thought was not for Grizel.
Elspeth was clinging to him, terrified and sobbing, and he cried to her,
"Shut your een," and then led her tenderly away. He was always good to
Elspeth.

* * * * *

There was no lack of sympathy with Grizel when the news spread through
the town, and unshod men with their gallowses hanging down, and women
buttoning as they ran, hurried to the Den. But to all the questions put
to her and to all the kindly offers made, as the body was carried to
Double Dykes, she only rocked her arms, crying, "I don't want anything
to eat. I shall stay all night beside her. I am not frightened at my
mamma. I won't tell you why she was in the Den. I am not sure how long
she has been dead. Oh, what do these little things matter?"

The great thing was that her mamma should be buried in the cemetery, and
not in unconsecrated ground with a stake through her as the boys had
predicted, and it was only after she was promised this that Grizel told
her little tale. She had feared for a long time that her mamma was dying
of consumption, but she told no one, because everybody was against her
and her mamma. Her mamma never knew that she was dying, and sometimes
she used to get so much better that Grizel hoped she would live a long
time, but that hope never lasted long. The reason she sat so much with
Ballingall was just to find out what doctors did to dying people to make
them live a little longer, and she watched his straiking to be able to
do it to her mamma when the time came. She was sure none of the women
would consent to straik her mamma. On the previous night, she could not
say at what hour, she had been awakened by a cold wind, and so she knew
that the door was open. She put out her hand in the darkness and found
that her mamma was not beside her. It had happened before, and she was
not frightened. She had hidden the key of the door that night and nailed
down the window, but her mamma had found the key. Grizel rose, lit the
lamp, and, having dressed hurriedly, set off with wraps to the Den. Her
mamma was generally as sensible as anybody in Thrums, but sometimes she
had shaking fits, and after them she thought it was the time of long
ago. Then she went to the Den to meet a man who had promised, she said,
to be there, but he never came, and before daybreak Grizel could usually
induce her to return home. Latterly she had persuaded her mamma to wait
for him in the old Lair, because it was less cold there, and she had got
her to do this last night. Her mamma did not seem very unwell, but she
fell asleep, and she died sleeping, and then Grizel went back to Double
Dykes for linen and straiked her.

Some say in Thrums that a spade was found in the Lair, but that is only
the growth of later years. Grizel had done all she could do, and
through the long Saturday she sat by the side of the body, helpless and
unable to cry. She knew that it could not remain there much longer, but
every time she rose to go and confess, fear of the indignities to which
the body of her darling mamma might be subjected pulled her back. The
boys had spoken idly, but hunted Grizel, who knew so much less and so
much more than any of them, believed it all.

It was she who had stood so near Gavinia in the ruined house. She had
only gone there to listen to human voices. When she discovered from the
talk of her friends that she had left a light burning at Double Dykes
and the door open, fear of the suspicions this might give rise to had
sent her to the house on the heels of the two boys, and it was she who
had stolen past them in the mist to put out the light and lock the door.
Then she had returned to her mamma's side.

The doctor was among the listeners, almost the only dry-eyed one, but he
was not dry-eyed because he felt the artless story least. Again and
again he rose from his chair restlessly, and Grizel thought he scowled
at her when he was really scowling at himself; as soon as she had
finished he cleared the room brusquely of all intruders, and then he
turned on her passionately.

"Think shame of yoursel'," he thundered, "for keeping me in the dark,"
and of course she took his words literally, though their full meaning
was, "I shall scorn myself from this hour for not having won the poor
child's confidence."

Oh, he was a hard man, Grizel thought, the hardest of them all. But she
was used to standing up to hard men, and she answered, defiantly: "I did
mean to tell you, that day you sent me with the bottle to Ballingall, I
was waiting at the surgery door to tell you, but you were cruel, you
said I was a thief, and then how could I tell you?"

This, too, struck home, and the doctor winced, but what he said was,
"You fooled me for a whole week, and the town knows it; do you think I
can forgive you for that?"

"I don't care whether you forgive me," replied Grizel at once.

"Nor do I care whether you care," he rapped out, all the time wishing he
could strike himself; "but I'm the doctor of this place, and when your
mother was ill you should have come straight to me. What had I done that
you should be afraid of me?"

"I am not afraid of you," she replied, "I am not afraid of anyone, but
mamma was afraid of you because she knew you had said cruel things about
her, and I thought--I won't tell you what I thought." But with a little
pressing she changed her mind and told him. "I was not sure whether you
would come to see her, though I asked you, and if you came I knew you
would tell her she was dying, and that would have made her scream. And
that is not all, I thought you might tell her that she would be buried
with a stake through her--"

"Oh, these blackguard laddies!" cried McQueen, clenching his fists.

"And so I dared not tell you," Grizel concluded calmly; "I am not
frightened at you, but I was frightened you would hurt my dear darling
mamma," and she went and stood defiantly between him and her mother.

The doctor moved up and down the room, crying, "How did I not know of
this, why was I not told?" and he knew that the fault had been his own,
and so was furious when Grizel told him so.

"Yes, it is," she insisted, "you knew mamma was an unhappy lady, and
that the people shouted things against her and terrified her; and you
must have known, for everybody knew, that she was sometimes silly and
wandered about all night, and you are a big strong man, and so you
should have been sorry for her; and if you had been sorry you would have
come to see her and been kind to her, and then you would have found it
all out."

"Have done, lassie!" he said, half angrily, half beseechingly, but she
did not understand that he was suffering, and she went on, relentlessly:
"And you knew that bad men used to come to see her at night--they have
not come for a long time--but you never tried to stop their coming, and
I could have stopped it if I had known they were bad; but I did not know
at first, and I was only a little girl, and you should have told me."

"Have done!" It was all that he could say, for like many he had heard of
men visiting the Painted Lady by stealth, and he had only wondered, with
other gossips, who they were.

He crossed again to the side of the dead woman, "And Ballingall's was
the only corpse you ever saw straiked?" he said in wonder, she had done
her work so well. But he was not doubting her; he knew already that this
girl was clothed in truthfulness.

"Was it you that kept this house so clean?" he asked, almost irritably,
for he himself was the one undusted, neglected-looking thing in it, and
he was suddenly conscious of his frayed wristband and of buttons hanging
by a thread.

"Yes."

"What age are you?"

"I think I am thirteen."

He looked long at her, vindictively she thought, but he was only
picturing the probable future of a painted lady's child, and he said
mournfully to himself, "Ay, it does not even end here; and that's the
crowning pity of it." But Grizel only heard him say, "Poor thing!" and
she bridled immediately.

"I won't let you pity me," she cried.

"You dour brat!" he retorted. "But you need not think you are to have
everything your own way still. I must get some Monypenny woman to take
you till the funeral is over, and after that--"

"I won't go," said Grizel, determinedly, "I shall stay with mamma till
she is buried."

He was not accustomed to contradiction, and he stamped his foot. "You
shall do as you are told," he said.

"I won't!" replied Grizel, and she also stamped her foot.

"Very well, then, you thrawn tid, but at any rate I'll send in a woman
to sleep with you."

"I want no one. Do you think I am afraid?"

"I think you will be afraid when you wake up in the darkness, and find
yourself alone with--with it."

"I sha'n't, I shall remember at once that she is to be buried nicely in
the cemetery, and that will make me happy."

"You unnatural--"

"Besides, I sha'n't sleep, I have something to do."

His curiosity again got the better of the doctor. "What can you have to
do at such a time?" he demanded, and her reply surprised him:

"I am to make a dress."

"You!"

"I have made them before now," she said indignantly.

"But at such a time!"

"It is a black dress," she cried, "I don't have one, I am to make it
out of mamma's."

He said nothing for some time, then "When did you think of this?"

"I thought of it weeks ago, I bought crape at the corner shop to be
ready, and--"

She thought he was looking at her in horror, and stopped abruptly. "I
don't care what you think," she said.

"What I do think," he retorted, taking up his hat, "is, that you are a
most exasperating lassie. If I bide here another minute I believe you'll
get round me."

"I don't want to get round you."

"Then what makes you say such things? I question if I'll get an hour's
sleep to-night for thinking of you!"

"I don't want you to think of me!"

He groaned. "What could an untidy, hardened old single man like me do
with you in his house?" he said. "Oh, you little limmer, to put such a
thought into my head."

"I never did!" she exclaimed, indignantly.

"It began, I do believe it began," he sighed, "the first time I saw you
easying Ballingall's pillows."

"What began?"

"You brat, you wilful brat, don't pretend ignorance. You set a trap to
catch me, and--"

"Oh!" cried Grizel, and she opened the door quickly. "Go away, you
horrid man," she said.

He liked her the more for this regal action, and therefore it enraged
him. Sheer anxiety lest he should succumb to her on the spot was what
made him bluster as he strode off, and "That brat of a Grizel," or "The
Painted Lady's most unbearable lassie," or "The dour little besom" was
his way of referring to her in company for days, but if any one agreed
with him he roared "Don't be a fool, man, she's a wonder, she's a
delight," or "You have a dozen yourself, Janet, but I wouldna neifer
Grizel for the lot of them." And it was he, still denouncing her so long
as he was contradicted, who persuaded the Auld Licht Minister to
officiate at the funeral. Then he said to himself, "And now I wash my
hands of her, I have done all that can be expected of me." He told
himself this a great many times as if it were a medicine that must be
taken frequently, and Grizel heard from Tommy, with whom she had some
strange conversations, that he was going about denouncing her "up hill
and down dale." But she did not care, she was so--so happy. For a hole
was dug for the Painted Lady in the cemetery, just as if she had been a
good woman, and Mr. Dishart conducted the service in Double Dykes before
the removal of the body, nor did he say one word that could hurt Grizel,
perhaps because his wife had drawn a promise from him. A large gathering
of men followed the coffin, three of them because, as yon may remember,
Grizel had dared them to stay away, but all the others out of sympathy
with a motherless child who, as the procession started, rocked her arms
in delight because her mamma was being buried respectably.

Being a woman, she could not attend the funeral, and so the chief
mourner was Tommy, as you could see by the position he took at the
grave, and by the white bands Grizel had sewn on his sleeves. He was
looking very important, as if he had something remarkable in prospect,
but little attention was given him until the cords were dropped into the
grave, and a prayer offered up, when he pulled Mr. Dishart's coat and
muttered something about a paper. Those who had been making ready to
depart swung round again, and the minister told him if he had anything
to say to speak out.

"It's a paper," Tommy said, nervous yet elated, and addressing all,
"that Grizel put in the coffin. She told me to tell you about it when
the cords fell on the lid."

"What sort of a paper?" asked Mr. Dishart, frowning.

"It's--it's a letter to God," Tommy gasped.

Nothing was to be heard except the shovelling of earth into the grave.
"Hold your spade, John," the minister said to the gravedigger, and then
even that sound stopped. "Go on," Mr. Dishart signed to the boy.

"Grizel doesna believe her mother has much chance of getting to heaven,"
Tommy said, "and she wrote the letter to God, so that when he opens the
coffins on the last day he will find it and read about them."

"About whom?" asked the stern minister.

"About Grizel's father, for one. She doesna know his name, but the
Painted Lady wore a locket wi' a picture of him on her breast, and it's
buried wi' her, and Grizel told God to look at it so as to know him. She
thinks her mother will be damned for having her, and that it winna be
fair unless God damns her father too."

"Go on," said Mr. Dishart.

"There was three Thrums men--I think they were gentlemen--" Tommy
continued, almost blithely, "that used to visit the Painted Lady in the
night time afore she took ill. They wanted Grizel to promise no to tell
about their going to Double Dykes, and she promised because she was ower
innocent to know what they went for--but their names are in the letter."

A movement in the crowd was checked by the minister's uplifted arm. "Go
on," he cried.

"She wouldna tell me who they were, because it would have been
breaking her promise," said Tommy, "but"--he looked around him
inquisitively--"but they're here at the funeral."

The mourners were looking sideways at each other, some breathing hard,
but none dared to speak before the minister. He stood for a long time in
doubt, but at last he signed to John to proceed with the filling in of
the grave. Contrary to custom all remained. Not until the grave was
again level with the sward did Mr. Dishart speak, and then it was with a
gesture that appalled his hearers. "This grave," he said, raising his
arm, "is locked till the day of judgment."

Leaving him standing there, a threatening figure, they broke into groups
and dispersed, walking slowly at first, and then fast, to tell their
wives.

James M. Barrie