One still Saturday afternoon some years ago a child pulled herself through a small window into a kitchen in the kirk-wynd of Thrums. She came from the old graveyard, whose only outlet, when the parish church gate is locked, is the windows of the wynd houses that hoop it round. Squatting on a three-legged stool she gazed wistfully at a letter on the chimney-piece, and then, tripping to the door, looked up and down the wynd.
Snecky Hobart, the bellman, hobbled past, and, though Davy was only four years old, she knew that as he had put on his blue top-coat he expected the evening to be fine. Tammas McQuhatty, the farmer of T'nowhead, met him at the corner, and they came to a standstill to say, 'She's hard, Sneck,' and 'She is so, T'nowhead,' referring to the weather. Observing that they had stopped they moved on again.
Women and children and a few men squeezed through their windows into the kirkyard, the women to knit stockings on fallen tombstones, and the men to dander pleasantly from grave to grave reading the inscriptions. All the men were well up in years, for though, with the Auld Lichts, the Sabbath began to come on at six o'clock on Saturday evening, the young men were now washing themselves cautiously in tin basins before going into the square to talk about women.
The clatter of more than one loom could still have been heard by Davy had not her ears been too accustomed to the sound to notice it. In the adjoining house Bell Mealmaker was peppering her newly-washed floor with sand, while her lodger, Hender Robb, with a rusty razor in his hand, looked for his chin in a tiny glass that was peeling on the wall. Jinny Tosh had got her husband, Aundra Lunan, who always spoke of her as She, ready, so to speak, for church eighteen hours too soon, and Aundra sat stiffly at the fire, putting his feet on the ribs every minute, to draw them back with a scared look at Her as he remembered that he had on his blacks. In a bandbox beneath the bed was his silk hat, which had been knocked down to him at Jamie Ramsay's roup, and Jinny had already put his red handkerchief, which was also a pictorial history of Scotland, into a pocket of his coat-tails, with a corner hanging gracefully out. Her puckered lips signified that, however much her man might desire to do so, he was not to carry his handkerchief to church in his hat, where no one could see it. On working days Aundra held his own, but at six o'clock on Saturday nights he passed into Her hands.
Across the wynd, in which a few hens wandered, Pete Todd was supping in his shirt-sleeves. His blacks lay ready for him in the coffin-bed, and Pete, glancing at them at intervals, supped as slowly as he could. In one hand he held a saucer, and in the other a chunk of bread, and they were as far apart as Pete's outstretched arms could put them. His chair was a yard from the table, on which, by careful balancing, he rested a shoeless foot, and his face was twisted to the side. Every time Easie Whamond, his wife, passed him she took the saucer from his hand, remarking that when a genteel man sat down to tea he did not turn his back on the table. Pete took this stolidly, like one who had long given up trying to understand the tantrums of women, and who felt that, as a lord of creation, he could afford to let it pass.
Davy sat on her three-legged stool keeping guard over her uncle Rob the saw-miller's letter, and longing for him to come. She screwed up her eyebrows as she had seen him do when he read a letter, and she felt that it would be nice if every one would come and look at her taking care of it. After a time she climbed up on her stool and stretched her dimpled arms toward the mantelpiece. From a string suspended across this, socks and stockings hung drying at the fire, and clutching one of them Davy drew herself nearer. With a chuckle, quickly suppressed, lest it should bring in Kitty Wilkie, who ought to have been watching her instead of wandering down the wynd to see who was to have salt-fish for supper, the child clutched the letter triumphantly, and, toddling to the door, slipped out of the house.
For a moment Davy faltered at the mouth of the wynd. There was no one there to whom she could show the letter. A bright thought entered her head, and immediately a dimple opened on her face and swallowed all the puckers. Rob had gone to the Whunny muir for wood, and she would take the letter to him. Then when Rob saw her he would look all around him, and if there was no one there to take note he would lift her to his shoulder, when they could read the letter together.
Davy ran out of the wynd into the square, thinking she heard Kitty's Sabbath voice, which reminded the child of the little squeaking saw that Rob used for soft wood. On week-days Kitty's voice was the big saw that puled and rasped, and Mag Wilkie shivered at it. Except to her husband Mag spoke with her teeth closed, so politely that no one knew what she said.
Davy stumbled up the steep brae down which men are blown in winter to their work, until she reached the rim of the hollow in which Thrums lies. Here the road stops short, as if frightened to cross the common of whin that bars the way to the north. On this common there are many cart-tracks over bumpy sward and slippery roots, that might be the ribs of the earth showing, and Davy, with a dazed look in her eyes, ran down one of them, the whins catching her frock to stop her, and then letting go, as if, after all, one child more or less in the world was nothing to them.
By and by she found herself on another road, along which Rob had trudged earlier in the day with a saw on his shoulder, but he had gone east, and the child's face was turned westward. It is a muddy road even in summer, and those who use it frequently get into the habit of lifting their legs high as they walk, like men picking their way through beds of rotting leaves. The light had faded from her baby face now, but her mouth was firm-set, and her bewildered eyes were fixed straight ahead.
The last person to see Davy was Tammas Haggart, who, with his waistcoat buttoned over his jacket, and garters of yarn round his trousers, was slowly breaking stones, though the road swallowed them quicker than he could feed it. Tammas heard the child approaching, for his hearing had become very acute, owing to his practice when at home of listening through the floor to what the folks below were saying, and of sometimes joining in. He leant on his hammer and watched her trot past.
The strength went gradually from Tammas's old arms, and again resting on his hammer he removed his spectacles and wiped them on his waistcoat. He took a comprehensive glance around at the fields, as if he now had an opportunity of seeing them for the first time during his sixty years' pilgrimage in these parts, and his eyes wandered aimlessly from the sombre firs and laughing beeches to the white farms that dot the strath. In the foreground two lazy colts surveyed him critically across a dyke. To the north the frowning Whunny hill had a white scarf round its neck.
Something troubled Tammas. It was the vision of a child in a draggled pinafore, and stepping into the middle of the road he looked down it in the direction in which Davy had passed.
'Chirsty Angus's lassieky,' he murmured.
Tammas sat down cautiously on the dyke and untied the red handkerchief that contained the remnants of his dinner. When he had smacked his lips over his flagon of cold kail, and seen the last of his crumbling oatmeal and cheese, his uneasiness returned, and he again looked down the road.
'I maun turn the bairn,' was his reflection.
It was now, however, half an hour since Davy had passed Tammas Haggart's cairn.
To Haggart, pondering between the strokes of his hammer, came a mole-catcher who climbed the dyke and sat down beside him.
'Ay, ay,' said the new-comer; to which Tammas replied abstractedly—
'Hae ye seen Davy Dundas?' the stone-breaker asked, after the pause that followed this conversation.
The mole-catcher stared heavily at his corduroys.
'I dinna ken him,' he said at last, 'but I hae seen naebody this twa 'oors.'
'It's no a him, it's a her. Ye canna hae been a' winter here withoot kennin' Rob Angus.'
'Ay, the saw-miller. He was i' the wud the day. I saw his cart gae hame. Ou, in coorse I ken Rob. He's an amazin' crittur.'
Tammas broke another stone as carefully as if it were a nut.
'I dinna deny,' he said, 'but what Rob's a curiosity. So was his faither afore 'im.'
'I've heard auld Rob was a queer body,' said Jamie, adding incredulously, 'they say he shaved twice i' the week an' wore a clean dickey ilka day.'
'No what ye wad say ilka day, but oftener than was called for. Rob wasna naturally ostentatious; na, it was the wife 'at insistit on't. Nanny was a terrible tid for cleanness. Ay, an' it's a guid thing in moderation, but she juist overdid it; yes, she overdid it. Man, it had sic a hand on her 'at even on her deathbed they had to bring a basin to her to wash her hands in.'
'Ay, ay? When there was sic a pride in her I wonder she didna lat young Rob to the college, an' him sae keen on't.'
'Ou, he was gaen, but ye see auld Rob got gey dottle after Nanny's death, an' so young Rob stuck to the saw-mill. It's curious hoo a body misses his wife when she's gone. Ay, it's like the clock stoppin'.'
'Weel, Rob's no gettin' to the college hasna made 'im humble.'
'Ye dinna like Rob?'
'Hoo did ye find that oot?' asked Jamie, a little taken aback. 'Man, Tammas,' he added admiringly, 'ye're michty quick i' the uptak.'
Tammas handed his snuff-mull to the mole-catcher, and then helped himself.
'I daursay, I daursay,' he said thoughtfully.
'I've naething to say agin the saw-miller,' continued Jamie, after thinking it out, 'but there's something in's face at's no sociable. He looks as if he was takkin ye aff in's inside.'
'Ay, auld Rob was a sarcestic stock too. It rins i' the blood.'
'I prefer a mair common kind o' man, bein' o' the common kind mysel.'
'Ay, there's naething sarcestic about you, Jamie,' admitted the stone-breaker.
'I'm an ord'nar man, Tammas.'
'Ye are, Jamie, ye are.'
'Maybe no sae oncommon ord'nar either.'
'Middlin' ord'nar, middlin' ord'nar.'
'I'm thinkin' ye're braw an' sarcestic yersel, Tammas?'
'I'd aye that repootation, Jeames. 'Am no an everyday sarcesticist, but juist noos an' nans. There was ae time I was speakin' tae Easie Webster, an' I said a terrible sarcestic thing. Ay, I dinna mind what it was, but it was michty sarcestic.'
'It's a gift,' said the mole-catcher.
'A gift it is,' said Tammas.
The stone-breaker took his flagon to a spring near at hand and rinsed it out. Several times while pulling it up and down the little pool an uneasy expression crossed his face as he remembered something about a child, but in washing his hands, using sand for soap, Davy slipped his memory, and he returned cheerfully to the cairn. Here Jamie was wagging his head from side to side like a man who had caught himself thinking.
'I'll warrant, Tammas,' he said, 'ye cudna tell's what set's on to speak aboot Rob Angus?'
'Na, it's a thing as has often puzzled me hoo we select wan topic mair than anither. I suppose it's like shootin'; ye juist blaze awa at the first bird 'at rises.'
'Ye was sayin', had I seen a lass wi' a lad's name. That began it, I'm thinkin'.'
'A lass wi' a lad's name? Ay, noo, that's oncommon. But mebbe ye mean Davy Dundas?'
'That's the name.'
Tammas paused in the act of buttoning his trouser pocket.
'Did ye say ye'd seen Davy?' he asked.
'Na, it was you as said 'at ye had seen her.'
'Ay, ay, Jamie, ye're richt. Man, I fully meant to turn the bairn, but she ran by at sic a steek 'at there was nae stoppin' her. Rob'll mak an awfu' ring-ding if onything comes ower Davy.'
'Is't the litlin 'at's aye wi' Rob?'
'Ay, it's Chirsty Angus's bairn, her 'at was Rob's sister. A' her fowk's deid but Rob.'
'I've seen them i' the saw-mill thegither. It didna strick me 'at Rob cared muckle for the crittury.'
'Ou, Rob's a reserved stock, but he's michty fond o' her when naebody's lookin'. It doesna do, ye ken, to lat on afore company at ye've a kind o' regaird for yere ain fowk. Na, it's lowerin'. But if it wasna afore your time, ye'd seen the cradle i' the saw-mill.'
'I never saw ony cradle, Tammas.'
'Weel, it was unco ingenious o' Rob. The bairn's father an' mither was baith gone when Davy was nae age, an' auld Rob passed awa sune efter. Rob had it all arranged to ging to the college—ay, he'd been workin' far on into the nicht the hale year to save up siller to keep 'imsel at Edinbory, but ye see he promised Chirsty to look after Davy an' no send her to the parish. He took her to the saw-mill an' brocht her up 'imsel. It was a terrible disappointment to Rob, his mind bein' bent on becomin' a great leeterary genius, but he's been michty guid to the bairn. Ay, she's an extr'or'nar takkin dawty, Davy, an' though I wudna like it kent, I've a fell notion o' her mysel. I mind ance gaen in to Rob's, an', wud ye believe, there was the bit lassieky sitting in the airm-chair wi' ane o' Rob's books open on her knees, an' her pertendin' to be readin' oot in't to Rob. The tiddy had watched him readin', ye un'erstan', an', man, she was mimickin' 'im to the life. There's nae accountin' for thae things, but ondootedly it was attractive.'
'But what aboot a cradle?'
'Ou, as I was sayin', Rob didna like to lat the bairn oot o' his sicht, so he made a queer cradle 'imsel, an' put it ower the burn. Ye'll mind the burn rins through the saw-mill? Ay, weel, Davie's cradle was put across't wi' the paddles sae arranged 'at the watter rocked the cradle. Man, the burn was juist like a mither to Davy, for no only did it rock her to sleep, but it sang to the bairn the hale time.'
'That was an ingenious contrivance, Tammas; but it was juist like Rob Angus's ind'pendence. The crittur aye perseests in doin' a'thing for 'imsel. I mind ae day seein' Cree Deuchars puttin' in a window into the saw-mill hoose, an' Rob's fingers was fair itchin' to do't quick 'imsel; ye ken Cree's fell slow? "See haud o' the potty," cries Rob, an' losh, he had the window in afore Cree cud hae cut the glass. Ay, ye canna deny but what Rob's fearfu' independent.'
'So was his faither. I call to mind auld Rob an' the minister ha'en a termendous debate aboot justification by faith, an' says Rob i' the tail o' the day, gettin' passionate-like, "I tell ye flat, Mester Byars," he says, "if I dinna ging to heaven in my ain wy, I dinna ging ava!"'
'Losh, losh! he wudna hae said that, though, to oor minister; na, he wudna hae daured.'
'Ye're a U.P., Jamie?' asked the stone-breaker.
'I was born U.P.,' replied the mole-catcher firmly, 'an' U.P. I'll die.'
'I say naething agin yer releegion,' replied Tammas, a little contemptuously, 'but to compare yer minister to oors is a haver. Man, when Mester Byars was oor minister, Sanders Dobie, the wricht, had a standin' engagement to mend the poopit ilka month.'
'We'll no speak o' releegion, Tammas, or we'll be quarrellin'. Ye micht tell's, though, hoo they cam to gie a lassieky sic a man's name as Davy.'
'It was an accident at the christenin'. Ye see, Hendry Dundas an' Chirsty was both vary young, an' when the bairn was born, they were shy-like aboot makkin the affair public; ay, Hendry cud hardly tak courage to tell the minister. When he was haddin' up the bit tid in the kirk to be baptized he was remarkable egitated. Weel, the minister—it was Mester Dishart—somehoo had a notion 'at the litlin was a laddie, an' when he reads the name on the paper, "Margaret Dundas," he looks at Hendry wi' the bairny in 's airms, an' says he, stern-like, "The child's a boy, is he not?"'
'Sal, that was a predeecament for Hendry.'
'Ay, an' Hendry was confused, as a man often is wi' his first; so says he, all trem'lin', "Yes, Mr. Dishart." "Then," says the minister, "I cannot christen him Margaret, so I will call him David." An' Davit the litlin was baptized, sure eneuch.'
'The mither wud be in a michty wy at that?'
'She was so, but as Hendry said, when she challenged him on the subject, says Hendry, "I dauredna conterdick the minister."'
Haggart's work being now over for the day, he sat down beside Jamie to await some other stone-breakers who generally caught him up on their way home. Strange figures began to emerge from the woods, a dumb man with a barrowful of roots for firewood, several women in men's coats, one smoking a cutty-pipe. A farm-labourer pulled his heavy legs in their rustling corduroys alongside a field of swedes, a ragged potato-bogle brandished its arms in a sudden puff of wind. Several men and women reached Haggart's cairn about the same time, and said, 'It is so,' or 'Ay, ay,' to him, according as they were loquacious or merely polite.
'We was speakin' aboot matermony,' the mole-catcher remarked, as the back-bent little party straggled toward Thrums.
'It's a caution,' murmured the farm-labourer, who had heard the observation from the other side of the dyke. 'Ay, ye may say so,' he added thoughtfully, addressing himself.
With the mole-catcher's companions, however, the talk passed into another rut. Nevertheless Haggart was thinking matrimony over, and by and by he saw his way to a joke, for one of the other stone-breakers had recently married a very small woman, and in Thrums, where women have to work, the far-seeing men prefer their wives big.
'Ye drew a sma' prize yersel, Sam'l,' said Tammas, with the gleam in his eye which showed that he was now in sarcastic fettle.
'Ay,' said the mole-catcher, 'Sam'l's Kitty is sma'. I suppose Sam'l thocht it wud be prudent-like to begin in a modest wy.'
'If Kitty hadna haen sae sma' hands,' said another stone-breaker, 'I wud hae haen a bid for her mysel.'
The women smiled; they had very large hands.
'They say,' said the youngest of them, who had a load of firewood on her back, ''at there's places whaur little hands is thocht muckle o'.'
There was an incredulous laugh at this.
'I wudna wonder, though,' said the mole-catcher, who had travelled; 'there's some michty queer ideas i' the big toons.'
'Ye'd better ging to the big toons, then, Sam'l,' suggested the merciless Tammas.
Sam'l woke up.
'Kitty's sma',' he said, with a chuckle, 'but she's an auld tid.'
'What made ye think o' speirin' her, Sam'l?'
'I cudna say for sartin,' answered Sam'l reflectively. 'I had nae intention o't till I saw Pete Proctor after her, an' syne, thinks I, I'll hae her. Ay, ye micht say as Pete was the instrument o' Providence in that case.'
'Man, man,' murmured Jamie, who knew Pete, 'Providence sometimes maks use o' strange instruments.'
'Ye was lang in gettin' a man yersel, Jinny,' said Tammas to an elderly woman.
'Fower-an'-forty year,' replied Jinny. 'It was like a stockin', lang i' the futin', but turned at last.'
'Lasses nooadays,' said the old woman who smoked, 'is partikler by what they used to be. I mind when Jeames Gowrie speired me: "Ye wud raither hae Davit Curly, I ken," he says. "I dinna deny 't," I says, for the thing was well kent, "but ye'll do vara weel, Jeames," says I, an' mairy him I did.'
'He was a harmless crittur, Jeames,' said Haggart, 'but queer. Ay, he was full o' maggots.'
'Ay,' said Jeames's widow, 'but though it's no for me to say 't, he deid a deacon.'
'There's some rale queer wys o' speirin' a wuman,' began the mole-catcher.
'Vary true, Jamie,' said a stone-breaker. 'I mind hoo——'
'There was a chappy ower by Blair,' continued Jamie, raising his voice, ''at micht hae been a single man to this day if it hadna been for the toothache.'
'Joey Fargus was the stock's name. He was oncommon troubled wi' the toothache till he found a cure.'
'I didna ken o' ony cure for sair teeth?'
'Joey's cure was to pour cauld watter strecht on into his mooth for the maiter o' twa 'oors, an' ae day he cam into Blair an' found Jess McTaggart (a speerity bit thingy she was—ou, she was so) fair greetin' wi' sair teeth. Joey advised the crittur to try his cure, an' when he left she was pourin' the watter into her mooth ower the sink. Weel, it so happened 'at Joey was in Blair again aboot twa month after, an' he gies a cry in at Willie's—that's Jess's father's, as ye'll un'erstan'. Ay, then, Jess had haen anither fit o' the toothache, an' she was hingin' ower the sink wi' a tanker o' watter in her han', just as she'd been when he saw her last. "What!" says Joey, wi' rale consairn, "nae better yet?" The stock thocht she had been haddin' gaen at the watter a' thae twa month.'
'I call to mind,' the stone-breaker broke in again, 'hoo a body——'
'So,' continued Jamie, 'Joey cudna help but admire the patience o' the lassie, an' says he, "Jess," he says, "come oot by to Mortar Pits, an' try oor well." That's hoo Joey Fargus speired's wife, an' if ye dinna believe's, ye've nae mair to do but ging to Mortar Pits an' see the well yersels.'
'I recall,' said the stone-breaker, 'a vary neat case o' speirin'. It was Jocky Wilkie, him 'at's brither was grieve to Broken Busses, an' the lass was Leeby Lunan. She was aye puttin' Jocky aff when he was on the point o' speirin' her, keepin' 'im hingin' on the hook like a trout, as ye may say, an' takkin her fling wi' ither lads at the same time.'
'Ay, I've kent them do that.'
'Weel, it fair maddened Jocky, so ae nicht he gings to her father's hoose wi' a present o' a grand thimble to her in his pooch, an' afore the hale hoosehold he perdooces't an' flings't wi' a bang on the dresser:
"Tak it," he says to Leeby, "or leave't." In coorse the thing's bein' done sae public-like, Leeby kent she had to mak up her mind there an' then. Ay, she took it.'
'But hoo did ye speir Chirsty yersel, Dan'l?' asked Jinny of the speaker.
There was a laugh at this, for, as was well known, Dan'l had jilted Chirsty.
'I never kent I had speired,' replied the stone-breaker, 'till Chirsty told me.'
'Ye'll no say ye wasna fond o' her?'
'Sometimes I was, an' syne at other times I was indifferent-like. The mair I thocht o't the mair risky I saw it was, so i' the tail o' the day I says to Chirsty, says I, "Na, na, Chirsty, lat's be as I am."'
'They say she took on terrible, Dan'l.'
'Ay, nae doot, but a man has 'imsel to conseeder.'
By this time they had crossed the moor of whins. It was a cold, still evening, and as they paused before climbing down into the town they heard the tinkle of a bell.
'That's Snecky's bell,' said the mole-catcher; 'what can he be cryin' at this time o' nicht?'
'There's something far wrang,' said one of the women. 'Look, a'body's rinnin' to the square.'
The troubled look returned to Tammas Haggart's face, and he stopped to look back across the fast-darkening moor.
'Did ony o' ye see little Davy Dundas, the saw-miller's bairny?' he began.
At that moment a young man swept by. His teeth were clenched, his eyes glaring.
'Speak o' the deil,' said the mole-catcher; 'that was Rob Angus.'