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Chapter 2

ROB BECOMES FREE

As Haggart hobbled down into the square, in the mole-catcher's rear, Hobart's cracked bell tinkled up the back-wynd, and immediately afterwards the bellman took his stand by the side of Tam Peter's fish-cart. Snecky gave his audience time to gather, for not every day was it given to him to cry a lost bairn. The words fell slowly from his reluctant lips. Before he flung back his head and ejected his proclamation in a series of puffs he was the possessor of exclusive news, but his tongue had hardly ceased to roll round the concluding sentence when the crowd took up the cry themselves. Wives flinging open their windows shouted their fears across the wynds. Davy Dundas had wandered from the kirkyard, where Rob had left her in Kitty Wilkie's charge till he returned from the woods. What had Kitty been about? It was believed that the litlin had taken with her a letter that had come for Rob. Was Rob back from the woods yet? Ay, he had scoured the whole countryside already for her.

Men gathered on the saw-mill brig, looking perplexedly at the burn that swivelled at this point, a sawdust colour, between wooden boards; but the women pressed their bairns closely to their wrappers and gazed in each other's face.

A log of wood, with which some one had sought to improvise a fire between the bricks that narrowed Rob Angus's grate, turned peevishly to charcoal without casting much light on the men and women in the saw-mill kitchen. Already the burn had been searched near the mill, with Rob's white face staring at the searchers from his door.

The room was small and close. A closet-bed with the door off afforded seats for several persons; and Davit Lunan, the tinsmith, who could read Homer with Rob in the original, sat clumsily on the dresser. The pendulum of a wag-at-the-wa' clock swung silently against the wall, casting a mouse-like shadow on the hearth. Over the mantelpiece was a sampler in many colours, the work of Rob's mother when she was still a maid. The bookcase, fitted into a recess that had once held a press, was Rob's own handiwork, and contained more books than any other house in Thrums. Overhead the thick wooden rafters were crossed with saws and staves.

There was a painful silence in the gloomy room. Snecky Hobart tried to break the log in the fireplace, using his leg as a poker, but desisted when he saw every eye turned on him. A glitter of sparks shot up the chimney, and the starling in the window began to whistle. Pete Todd looked undecidedly at the minister, and, lifting a sack, flung it over the bird's cage, as if anticipating the worst. In Thrums they veil their cages if there is a death in the house.

'What do ye mean, Pete Todd?' cried Rob Angus fiercely.

His voice broke, but he seized the sack and cast it on the floor. The starling, however, whistled no more.

Looking as if he could strike Pete Todd, Rob stood in the centre of his kitchen, a saw-miller for the last time. Though they did not know it, his neighbours there were photographing him in their minds, and their children were destined to gape in the days to come over descriptions of Rob Angus in corduroys.

These pictures showed a broad-shouldered man of twenty-six, whose face was already rugged. A short brown beard hid the heavy chin, and the lips were locked as if Rob feared to show that he was anxious about the child. His clear grey eyes were younger-looking than his forehead, and the swollen balls beneath them suggested a student rather than a working man. His hands were too tanned and hard ever to be white, and he delved a little in his walk, as if he felt uncomfortable without a weight on his back. He was the best saw-miller in his county, but his ambition would have scared his customers had he not kept it to himself. Many a time strangers had stared at him as he strode along the Whunny road, and wondered what made this stalwart man whirl the axe that he had been using as a staff. Then Rob was thinking of the man he was going to be when he could safely leave little Davy behind him, and it was not the firs of the Whunny wood that were in his eye, but a roaring city and a saw-miller taking it by the throat. There had been a time when he bore no love for the bairn who came between him and his career.

Rob was so tall that he could stand erect in but few rooms in Thrums, and long afterwards, when very different doors opened to him, he still involuntarily ducked, as he crossed a threshold, to save his head. Up to the day on which Davy wandered from home he had never lifted his hat to a lady; when he did that the influence of Thrums would be broken for ever.

'It's oncommon foolish o' Rob,' said Pete Todd, retreating to the side of the mole-catcher, 'no to be mair resigned-like.'

'It's his ind'pendence,' answered Jamie; 'ay, the wricht was sayin' the noo, says he, "If Davy's deid, Rob'll mak the coffin 'imsel, he's sae michty ind'pendent."'

Tammas Haggart stumbled into the saw-miller's kitchen. It would have been a womanish kind of thing to fling-to the door behind him.

'Fine growin' day, Rob,' he said deliberately.

'It is so, Tammas,' answered the saw-miller hospitably, for Haggart had been his father's bosom friend.

'No much drowth, I'm thinkin',' said Hobart, relieved by the turn the conversation had taken.

Tammas pulled from beneath the table an unsteady three-legged stool—Davy's stool—and sat down on it slowly. Rob took a step nearer as if to ask him to sit somewhere else, and then turned away his head.

'Ay, ay,' said Haggart.

Then, as he saw the others gathering round the minister at the door, he moved uneasily on his stool.

'Whaur's Davy?' he said.

'Did ye no ken she was lost?' the saw-miller asked, in a voice that was hardly his own.

'Ay, I kent,' said Tammas; 'she's on the Whunny road.'

Rob had been talking to the minister in what both thought English, which in Thrums is considered an ostentatious language, but he turned on Tammas in broad Scotch. In the years to come, when he could wear gloves without concealing his hands in his pockets, excitement brought on Scotch as a poultice raises blisters.

'Tammas Haggart,' he cried, pulling the stone-breaker off his stool.

The minister interposed.

'Tell us what you know at once, Tammas,' said Mr. Dishart, who, out of the pulpit, had still a heart.

It was a sad tale that Haggart had to tell, if a short one, and several of the listeners shook their heads as they heard it.

'I meant to turn the lassieky,' the stone-breaker explained, 'but, ou, she was past in a twinklin'.'

On the saw-mill brig the minister quickly organised a search party, the brig that Rob had floored anew but the week before, rising daily with the sun to do it, because the child's little boot had caught in a worn board. From it she had often crooned to watch the dank mill-wheel climbing the bouncing burn. Ah, Rob, the rotten old planks would have served your turn.

'The Whunny road' were the words passed from mouth to mouth, and the driblet of men fell into line.

Impetuous is youth, and the minister was not perhaps greatly to blame for starting at once. But Lang Tammas, his chief elder, paused on the threshold.

'The Lord giveth,' he said solemnly, taking off his hat and letting the night air cut through his white hair, 'and the Lord taketh away: blessed be the name of the Lord.'

The saw-miller opened his mouth, but no words came.

The little search party took the cold Whunny road. The day had been bright and fine, and still there was a smell of flowers in the air. The fickle flowers! They had clustered round Davy and nestled on her neck when she drew the half-ashamed saw-miller through the bleating meadows, and now they could smile on him when he came alone—all except the daisies. The daisies, that cannot play a child false, had craned their necks to call Davy back as she tripped over them, and bowed their heavy little heads as she toddled on. It was from them that the bairn's track was learned after she wandered from the Whunny road.

By and by the hills ceased to echo their wailing response to Hobart's bell.

Far in the rear of the more eager searchers, the bellman and the joiner had found a seat on a mossy bank, and others, footsore and weary, had fallen elsewhere from the ranks. The minister and half a dozen others scattered over the fields and on the hillsides, despondent, but not daring to lag. Tinkers cowered round their kettles under threatening banks, and the squirrels were shadows gliding from tree to tree.

At a distant smithy a fitful light still winked to the wind, but the farm lamps were out and all the land was hushed. It was now long past midnight in country parts.

Rob Angus was young and strong, but the heaven-sent gift of tears was not for him. Blessed the moaning mother by the cradle of her eldest-born, and the maid in tears for the lover who went out so brave in the morning and was not at evenfall, and the weeping sister who can pray for her soldier brother, and the wife on her husband's bosom.

Some of his neighbours had thought it unmanly when Rob, at the rumble of a cart, hurried from the saw-mill to snatch the child in his arms, and bear her to a bed of shavings. At such a time Davy would lift a saw to within an inch of her baby face, and then, letting it fall with a wicked chuckle, run to the saw-miller's arms, as sure of her lover as ever maiden was of man.

A bashful lover he had been, shy, not of Davy but of what men would say, and now the time had come when he looked wistfully back to a fevered child tossing in a dark bed, the time when a light burned all night in Rob's kitchen, and a trembling, heavy-eyed man sat motionless on a high-backed chair. How noiselessly he approached the bonny mite and replaced the arm that had wandered from beneath the coverlet! Ah, for the old time when a sick imperious child told her uncle to lie down beside her, and Rob sat on the bed, looking shamefacedly at the minister. Mr. Dishart had turned away his head. Such things are not to be told. They are between a man and his God.

Far up the Whunny hill they found Davy's little shoe. Rob took it in his hand, a muddy, draggled shoe that had been a pretty thing when he put it on her foot that morning. The others gathered austerely around him, and strong Rob stood still among the brackens.

'I'm dootin' she's deid,' said Tammas Haggart.

Haggart looked into the face of old Rob's son, and then a strange and beautiful thing happened. To the wizened stone-breaker it was no longer the sombre Whunny hill that lay before him. Two barefooted herd-laddies were on the green fields of adjoining farms. The moon looking over the hills found them on their ragged backs, with the cows munching by their side. They had grown different boys, nor known why, among the wild roses of red and white, and trampling neck-high among the ferns. Haggart saw once again the raspberry bushes they had stripped together into flagons gleaming in the grass. Rob had provided the bent pin with which Tammas lured his first trout to land, and Tammas in return had invited him to thraw the neck of a doomed hen. They had wandered hand-in-hand through thirsty grass, when scythes whistled in the corn-fields, and larks trilled overhead, and braes were golden with broom.

They are two broad-shouldered men now, and Haggart's back is rounding at the loom. From his broken window he can see Rob at the saw-mill, whistling as the wheel goes round. It is Saturday night, and they are in the square, clean and dapper, talking with other gallants about lasses. They are courting the same maid, and she sits on a stool by the door, knitting a stocking, with a lover on each side. They drop in on her mother straining the blaeberry juice through a bag suspended between two chairs. They sheepishly admire while Easie singes a hen; for love of her they help her father to pit his potatoes; and then, for love of the other, each gives her up. It is a Friday night, and from a but and ben around which the rabble heave and toss, a dozen couples emerge in strangely gay and bright apparel. Rob leads the way with one lass, and Tammas follows with another. It must be Rob's wedding-day.

Dim grow Tammas's eyes on the Whunny hill. The years whirl by, and already he sees a grumpy gravedigger go out to dig Rob's grave. Alas! for the flash into the past that sorrow gives. As he clutches young Rob's hand the light dies from Tammas's eyes, his back grows round and bent, and the hair is silvered that lay in tousled locks on a lad's head.

A nipping wind cut the search party and fled down the hill that was changing in colour from black to grey. The searchers might have been smugglers laden with whisky bladders, such as haunted the mountain in bygone days. Far away at Thrums mothers still wrung their hands for Davy, but the men slept.

Heads were bared, and the minister raised his voice in prayer. One of the psalms of David trembled in the grey of the morning straight to heaven; and then two young men, glancing at Mr. Dishart, raised aloft a fallen rowan-tree, to let it fall as it listed. It fell pointing straight down the hill, and the search party took that direction; all but Rob, who stood motionless, with the shoe in his hand. He did not seem to comprehend the minister's beckoning.

Haggart took him by the arm.

'Rob, man, Rob Angus,' he said, 'she was but fower year auld.'

The stone-breaker unbuttoned his trouser pocket, and with an unsteady hand drew out his snuff-mull. Rob tried to take it, but his arm trembled, and the mull fell among the heather.

'Keep yourselves from idols,' said Lang Tammas sternly.

But the minister was young, and children lisped his name at the white manse among the trees at home. He took the shoe from the saw-miller who had once been independent, and they went down the hill together.

Davy lay dead at the edge of the burn that gurgles on to the saw-mill, one little foot washed by the stream. The Whunny had rocked her to sleep for the last time. Half covered with grass, her baby-fist still clutched the letter. When Rob saw her, he took his darling dead bairn in his arms and faced the others with cracking jaws.

'I dinna ken,' said Tammas Haggart, after a pause, 'but what it's kind o' nat'ral.'

James M. Barrie

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