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I must mention that my father never objected now to my riding his little mare Missy, as we called her. Indeed, I had great liberty with regard to her, and took her out for a trot and a gallop as often as I pleased. Sometimes when there was a press of work she would have to go in a cart or drag a harrow, for she was so handy they could do anything with her; but this did not happen often, and her condition at all seasons of the year testified that she knew little of hard work. My father was very fond of her, and used to tell wonderful stories of her judgment and skill. I believe he was never quite without a hope that somehow or other he should find her again in the next world. At all events I am certain that it was hard for him to believe that so much wise affection should have been created to be again uncreated. I cannot say that I ever heard him give utterance to anything of the sort; but whence else should I have had such a firm conviction, dating from a period farther back than my memory can reach, that whatever might become of the other horses, Missy was sure to go to heaven? I had a kind of notion that, being the bearer of my father upon all his missions of doctrine and mercy, she belonged to the clergy, and, sharing in their privileges, must have a chance before other animals of her kind. I believe this was a right instinct glad of a foolish reason. I am wiser now, and extend the hope to the rest of the horses, for I cannot believe that the God who does nothing in vain ever creates in order to destroy.
I made haste to learn my lessons for the Monday, although it was but after a fashion, my mind was so full of the adventure before me. As soon as prayers and supper were over--that is, about ten o'clock--I crept out of the house and away to the stable. It was a lovely night. A kind of grey peace filled earth and air and sky. It was not dark, although rather cloudy; only a dim dusk, like a vapour of darkness, floated around everything. I was fond of being out at night, but I had never before contemplated going so far alone. I should not, however, feel alone with Missy under me, for she and I were on the best of terms, although sometimes she would take a fit of obstinacy, and refuse to go in any other than the direction she pleased. Of late, however, she had asserted herself less frequently in this manner. I suppose she was aware that I grew stronger and more determined.
I soon managed to open the door of the stable, for I knew where the key lay. It was very dark, but I felt my way through, talking all the time that the horses might not be startled if I came upon one of them unexpectedly, for the stable was narrow, and they sometimes lay a good bit out of their stalls. I took care, however, to speak in a low tone that the man who slept with only a wooden partition between him and the stable might not hear. I soon had the bridle upon Missy, but would not lose time in putting on the saddle. I led her out, got on her back with the help of a stone at the stable door, and rode away. She had scarcely been out all day, and was rather in the mood for a ride. The voice of Andrew, whom the noise of her feet had aroused, came after me, calling to know who it was. I called out in reply, for I feared he might rouse the place; and he went back composed, if not contented. It was no use, at all events, to follow me.
I had not gone far before the extreme stillness of the night began to sink into my soul and make me quiet. Everything seemed thinking about me, but nothing would tell me what it thought. Not feeling, however, that I was doing wrong, I was only awed not frightened by the stillness. I made Missy slacken her speed, and rode on more gently, in better harmony with the night. Not a sound broke the silence except the rough cry of the land-rail from the fields and the clatter of Missy's feet. I did not like the noise she made, and got upon the grass, for here there was no fence. But the moment she felt the soft grass, off she went at a sudden gallop. Her head was out before I had the least warning of her intention. She tore away over the field in quite another direction from that in which I had been taking her, and the gallop quickened until she was going at her utmost speed. The rapidity of the motion and the darkness together--for it seemed darkness now--I confess made me frightened. I pulled hard at the reins, but without avail. In a minute I had lost my reckoning, and could not tell where I was in the field, which was a pretty large one; but soon finding that we were galloping down a hill so steep that I had trouble in retaining my seat, I began, not at all to my comfort, to surmise in what direction the mare was carrying me. We were approaching the place where we had sat that same afternoon, close by the mound with the trees upon it, the scene of my adventure with Wandering Willie, and of the fancied murder. I had scarcely thought of either until the shadows had begun to fall long, and now in the night, when all was shadow, both reflections made it horrible. Besides, if Missy should get into the bog! But she knew better than that, wild as her mood was. She avoided it, and galloped past, but bore me to a far more frightful goal, suddenly dropping into a canter, and then standing stock-still.
It was a cottage half in ruins, occupied by an old woman whom I dimly recollected having once gone with my father to see--a good many years ago, as it appeared to me now. She was still alive, however, very old, and bedridden. I recollected that from the top of her wooden bed hung a rope for her to pull herself up by when she wanted to turn, for she was very rheumatic, and this rope for some cause or other had filled me with horror. But there was more of the same sort. The cottage had once been a smithy, and the bellows had been left in its place. Now there is nothing particularly frightful about a pair of bellows, however large it may be, and yet the recollection of that huge structure of leather and wood, with the great iron nose projecting from the contracting cheeks of it, at the head of the old woman's bed, so capable yet so useless, did return upon me with terror in the dusk of that lonely night. It was mingled with a vague suspicion that the old woman was a bit of a witch, and a very doubtful memory that she had been seen on one occasion by some night-farer, when a frightful storm was raging, blowing away at that very bellows as hard as her skinny arms and lean body could work the lever, so that there was almost as great a storm of wind in her little room as there was outside of it. If there was any truth in the story, it is easily accounted for by the fact that the poor old woman had been a little out of her mind for many years,--and no wonder, for she was nearly a hundred, they said. Neither is it any wonder that when Missy stopped almost suddenly, with her fore-feet and her neck stretched forward, and her nose pointed straight for the door of the cottage at a few yards' distance, I should have felt very queer indeed. Whether my hair stood on end or not I do not know, but I certainly did feel my skin creep all over me. An ancient elder-tree grew at one end of the cottage, and I heard the lonely sigh of a little breeze wander through its branches. The next instant a frightful sound from within the cottage broke the night air into what seemed a universal shriek. Missy gave a plunge, turned round on her hind-legs, and tore from the place. I very nearly lost my seat, but terror made me cling the faster to my only companion, as ventre-à-terre she flew home. It did not take her a minute to reach the stable-door. There she had to stop, for I had shut it when I brought her out. It was mortifying to find myself there instead of under John Adam's hayloft, the rescuer of Jamie Duff. But I did not think of that for a while. Shaken with terror, and afraid to dismount and be next the ground, I called upon Andrew as well as my fear would permit; but my voice was nearly unmanageable, and I could do little more than howl with it.
In a few minutes, to me a time of awful duration--for who could tell what might be following me up from the hollow?--Andrew appeared half-dressed, and not in the best of tempers, remarking it was an odd thing to go out riding when honest people were in their beds, except, he added, I meant to take to the highway. Thereupon, rendered more communicative by the trial I had gone through, I told him the whole story, what I had intended and how I had been frustrated. He listened, scratched his head, and saying someone ought to see if anything was the matter with the old woman, turned in to put on the rest of his clothes.
"You had better go home to bed, Ranald," he said.
"Won't you be frightened, Andrew?" I asked.
"Frightened? What should I be frightened at? It's all waste to be frightened before you know whether the thing is worth it."
My courage had been reviving fast in the warm presence of a human being. I was still seated on Missy. To go home having done nothing for Jamie, and therefore nothing for Elsie, after all my grand ideas of rescue and restoration, was too mortifying. I should feel so small when I woke in the morning! And yet suppose the something which gave that fearful cry in the cottage should be out roaming the fields and looking for mel I had courage enough, however, to remain where I was till Andrew came out again, and as I sat still on the mare's back, my courage gradually rose. Nothing increases terror so much as running away. When he reappeared, I asked him:
"What do you think it could be, Andrew?"
"How should I tell?" returned Andrew. "The old woman has a very queer cock, I know, that always roosts on the top of her bed, and crows like no cock I ever heard crow. Or it might be Wandering Willie--he goes to see her sometimes, and the demented creature might strike up his pipes at any unearthly hour."
I was not satisfied with either suggestion; but the sound I had heard had already grown so indistinct in my memory, that for anything I could tell it might have been either. The terror which it woke in my mind had rendered me incapable of making any observations or setting down any facts with regard to it. I could only remember that I had heard a frightful noise, but as to what it was like I could scarcely bear the smallest testimony.
I begged Andrew to put the saddle on for me, as I should then have more command of Missy. He went and got it, appearing, I thought, not at all over-anxious about old Betty; and I meantime buckled on an old rusty spur which lay in the stable window, the leathers of it crumbling off in flakes. Thus armed, and mounted with my feet in the stirrups, and therefore a good pull on Missy's mouth, I found my courage once more equal to the task before me. Andrew and I parted at right angles; he across the field to old Betty's cottage, and I along the road once more in the direction of John Adam's farm.
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