Nor board nor garner own we now, Nor roof nor latched door, Nor kind mate, bound, by holy vow, To bless a good man's store Noon lulls us in a gloomy den, And night is grown our day; Uprouse ye, then, my merry men! And use it as ye may
Brown could now reckon his foes: they were five in number; two of them were very powerful men, who appeared to be either real seamen or strollers who assumed that character; the other three, an old man and two lads, were slighter made, and, from their black hair and dark complexion, seemed to belong to Meg's tribe. They passed from one to another the cup out of which they drank their spirits. 'Here's to his good voyage!' said one of the seamen, drinking; 'a squally night he's got, however, to drift through the sky in.'
We omit here various execrations with which these honest gentlemen garnished their discourse, retaining only such of their expletives as are least offensive.
'A does not mind wind and weather; 'a has had many a north-easter in his day.'
'He had his last yesterday,' said another gruffly; 'and now old Meg may pray for his last fair wind, as she's often done before.'
'I'll pray for nane o' him,' said Meg, 'nor for you neither, you randy dog. The times are sair altered since I was a kinchen-mort. Men were men then, and fought other in the open field, and there was nae milling in the darkmans. And the gentry had kind hearts, and would have given baith lap and pannel to ony puir gipsy; and there was not one, from Johnnie Faa the upright man to little Christie that was in the panniers, would cloyed a dud from them. But ye are a' altered from the gude auld rules, and no wonder that you scour the cramp-ring and trine to the cheat sae often. Yes, ye are a' altered: you 'll eat the goodman's meat, drink his drink, sleep on the strammel in his barn, and break his house and cut his throat for his pains! There's blood on your hands, too, ye dogs, mair than ever came there by fair righting. See how ye'll die then. Lang it was ere he died; he strove, and strove sair, and could neither die nor live; but you--half the country will see how ye'll grace the woodie.'
The party set up a hoarse laugh at Meg's prophecy.
'What made you come back here, ye auld beldam?' said one of the gipsies; 'could ye not have staid where you were, and spaed fortunes to the Cumberland flats? Bing out and tour, ye auld devil, and see that nobody has scented; that's a' you're good for now.'
'Is that a' I am good for now?' said the indignant matron. 'I was good for mair than that in the great fight between our folk and Patrico Salmon's; if I had not helped you with these very fambles (holding up her hands), Jean Baillie would have frummagem'd you, ye feckless do-little!'
There was here another laugh at the expense of the hero who had received this amazon's assistance.
'Here, mother,' said one of the sailors, 'here's a cup of the right for you, and never mind that bully-huff.'
Meg drank the spirits, and, withdrawing herself from farther conversation, sat down before the spot where Brown lay hid, in such a posture that it would have been difficult for any one to have approached it without her rising. The men, however, showed no disposition to disturb her.
They closed around the fire and held deep consultation together; but the low tone in which they spoke, and the cant language which they used, prevented Brown from understanding much of their conversation. He gathered in general that they expressed great indignation against some individual. 'He shall have his gruel,' said one, and then whispered something very low into the ear of his comrade.
'I'll have nothing to do with that,' said the other.
'Are you turned hen-hearted, Jack?'
'No, by G-d, no more than yourself, but I won't. It was something like that stopped all the trade fifteen or twenty years ago. You have heard of the Loup?'
'I have heard HIM (indicating the corpse by a jerk of his head) tell about that job. G-d, how he used to laugh when he showed us how he fetched him off the perch!'
'Well, but it did up the trade for one while,' said Jack.
'How should that be?' asked the surly villain.
'Why,' replied Jack, 'the people got rusty about it, and would not deal, and they had bought so many brooms that--'
'Well, for all that,' said the other, 'I think we should be down upon the fellow one of these darkmans and let him get it well.'
'But old Meg's asleep now,' said another; 'she grows a driveller, and is afraid of her shadow. She'll sing out, some of these odd-come-shortlies, if you don't look sharp.'
'Never fear,' said the old gipsy man; 'Meg's true-bred; she's the last in the gang that will start; but she has some queer ways, and often cuts queer words.'
With more of this gibberish they continued the conversation, rendering it thus, even to each other, a dark obscure dialect, eked out by significant nods and signs, but never expressing distinctly, or in plain language, the subject on which it turned. At length one of them, observing Meg was still fast asleep, or appeared to be so, desired one of the lads 'to hand in the black Peter, that they might flick it open.' The boy stepped to the door and brought in a portmanteau, which Brown instantly recognised for his own. His thoughts immediately turned to the unfortunate lad he had left with the carriage. Had the ruffians murdered him? was the horrible doubt that crossed his mind. The agony of his attention grew yet keener, and while the villains pulled out and admired the different articles of his clothes and linen, he eagerly listened for some indication that might intimate the fate of the postilion. But the ruffians were too much delighted with their prize, and too much busied in examining its contents, to enter into any detail concerning the manner in which they had acquired it. The portmanteau contained various articles of apparel, a pair of pistols, a leathern case with a few papers, and some money, etc., etc. At any other time it would have provoked Brown excessively to see the unceremonious manner in which the thieves shared his property, and made themselves merry at the expense of the owner. But the moment was too perilous to admit any thoughts but what had immediate reference to self-preservation.
After a sufficient scrutiny into the portmanteau, and an equitable division of its contents, the ruffians applied themselves more closely to the serious occupation of drinking, in which they spent the greater part of the night. Brown was for some time in great hopes that they would drink so deep as to render themselves insensible, when his escape would have been an easy matter. But their dangerous trade required precautions inconsistent with such unlimited indulgence, and they stopped short on this side of absolute intoxication. Three of them at length composed themselves to rest, while the fourth watched. He was relieved in this duty by one of the others after a vigil of two hours. When the second watch had elapsed, the sentinel awakened the whole, who, to Brown's inexpressible relief, began to make some preparations as if for departure, bundling up the various articles which each had appropriated. Still, however, there remained something to be done. Two of them, after some rummaging which not a little alarmed Brown, produced a mattock and shovel; another took a pickaxe from behind the straw on which the dead body was extended. With these implements two of them left the hut, and the remaining three, two of whom were the seamen, very strong men, still remained in garrison.
After the space of about half an hour, one of those who had departed again returned, and whispered the others. They wrapped up the dead body in the sea cloak which had served as a pall, and went out, bearing it along with them. The aged sibyl then arose from her real or feigned slumbers. She first went to the door, as if for the purpose of watching the departure of her late inmates, then returned, and commanded Brown, in a low and stifled voice, to follow her instantly. He obeyed; but, on leaving the hut, he would willingly have repossessed himself of his money, or papers at least, but this she prohibited in the most peremptory manner. It immediately occurred to him that the suspicion of having removed anything of which he might repossess himself would fall upon this woman, by whom in all probability his life had been saved. He therefore immediately desisted from his attempt, contenting himself with seizing a cutlass, which one of the ruffians had flung aside among the straw. On his feet, and possessed of this weapon, he already found himself half delivered from the dangers which beset him. Still, however, he felt stiffened and cramped, both with the cold and by the constrained and unaltered position which he had occupied all night. But, as he followed the gipsy from the door of the hut, the fresh air of the morning and the action of walking restored circulation and activity to his benumbed limbs.
The pale light of a winter's morning was rendered more clear by the snow, which was lying all around, crisped by the influence of a severe frost. Brown cast a hasty glance at the landscape around him, that he might be able again to know the spot. The little tower, of which only a single vault remained, forming the dismal apartment in which he had spent this remarkable night, was perched on the very point of a projecting rock overhanging the rivulet. It was accessible only on one side, and that from the ravine or glen below. On the other three sides the bank was precipitous, so that Brown had on the preceding evening escaped more dangers than one; for, if he had attempted to go round the building, which was once his purpose, he must have been dashed to pieces. The dell was so narrow that the trees met in some places from the opposite sides. They were now loaded with snow instead of leaves, and thus formed a sort of frozen canopy over the rivulet beneath, which was marked by its darker colour, as it soaked its way obscurely through wreaths of snow. In one place, where the glen was a little wider, leaving a small piece of flat ground between the rivulet and the bank, were situated the ruins of the hamlet in which Brown had been involved on the preceding evening. The ruined gables, the insides of which were japanned with turf-smoke, looked yet blacker contrasted with the patches of snow which had been driven against them by the wind, and with the drifts which lay around them.
Upon this wintry and dismal scene Brown could only at present cast a very hasty glance; for his guide, after pausing an instant as if to permit him to indulge his curiosity, strode hastily before him down the path which led into the glen. He observed, with some feelings of suspicion, that she chose a track already marked by several feet, which he could only suppose were those of the depredators who had spent the night in the vault. A moment's recollection, however, put his suspicions to rest. It was not to be thought that the woman, who might have delivered him up to her gang when in a state totally defenceless, would have suspended her supposed treachery until he was armed and in the open air, and had so many better chances of defence or escape. He therefore followed his guide in confidence and silence. They crossed the small brook at the same place where it previously had been passed by those who had gone before. The footmarks then proceeded through the ruined village, and from thence down the glen, which again narrowed to a ravine, after the small opening in which they were situated. But the gipsy no longer followed the same track; she turned aside, and led the way by a very rugged and uneven path up the bank which overhung the village. Although the snow in many places hid the pathway, and rendered the footing uncertain and unsafe, Meg proceeded with a firm and determined step, which indicated an intimate knowledge of the ground she traversed. At length they gained the top of the bank, though by a passage so steep and intricate that Brown, though convinced it was the same by which he had descended on the night before, was not a little surprised how he had accomplished the task without breaking his neck. Above, the country opened wide and uninclosed for about a mile or two on the one hand, and on the other were thick plantations of considerable extent.
Meg, however, still led the way along the bank of the ravine out of which they had ascended, until she heard beneath the murmur of voices. She then pointed to a deep plantation of trees at some distance. 'The road to Kippletringan,' she said, 'is on the other side of these inclosures. Make the speed ye can; there's mair rests on your life than other folk's. But you have lost all--stay.' She fumbled in an immense pocket, from which she produced a greasy purse--'Many's the awmous your house has gi'en Meg and hers; and she has lived to pay it back in a small degree;' and she placed the purse in his hand.
'The woman is insane,' thought Brown; but it was no time to debate the point, for the sounds he heard in the ravine below probably proceeded from the banditti. 'How shall I repay this money,' he said, 'or how acknowledge the kindness you have done me?'
'I hae twa boons to crave,' answered the sibyl, speaking low and hastily: 'one, that you will never speak of what you have seen this night; the other, that you will not leave this country till you see me again, and that you leave word at the Gordon Arms where you are to be heard of, and when I next call for you, be it in church or market, at wedding or at burial, Sunday or Saturday, mealtime or fasting, that ye leave everything else and come with me.'
'Why, that will do you little good, mother.'
'But 'twill do yoursell muckle, and that's what I'm thinking o'. I am not mad, although I have had eneugh to make me sae; I am not mad, nor doating, nor drunken. I know what I am asking, and I know it has been the will of God to preserve you in strange dangers, and that I shall be the instrument to set you in your father's seat again. Sae give me your promise, and mind that you owe your life to me this blessed night.'
'There's wildness in her manner, certainly,' thought Brown, 'and yet it is more like the wildness of energy than of madness.'--'Well, mother, since you do ask so useless and trifling a favour, you have my promise. It will at least give me an opportunity to repay your money with additions. You are an uncommon kind of creditor, no doubt, but--'
'Away, away, then!' said she, waving her hand. 'Think not about the goud, it's a' your ain; but remember your promise, and do not dare to follow me or look after me.' So saying, she plunged again into the dell, and descended it with great agility, the icicles and snow-wreaths showering down after her as she disappeared.
Notwithstanding her prohibition, Brown endeavoured to gain some point of the bank from which he might, unseen, gaze down into the glen; and with some difficulty (for it must be conceived that the utmost caution was necessary) he succeeded. The spot which he attained for this purpose was the point of a projecting rock, which rose precipitously from among the trees. By kneeling down among the snow and stretching his head cautiously forward, he could observe what was going on in the bottom of the dell. He saw, as he expected, his companions of the last night, now joined by two or three others. They had cleared away the snow from the foot of the rock and dug a deep pit, which was designed to serve the purpose of a grave. Around this they now stood, and lowered into it something wrapped in a naval cloak, which Brown instantly concluded to be the dead body of the man he had seen expire. They then stood silent for half a minute, as if under some touch of feeling for the loss of their companion. But if they experienced such, they did not long remain under its influence, for all hands went presently to work to fill up the grave; and Brown, perceiving that the task would be soon ended, thought it best to take the gipsy woman's hint and walk as fast as possible until he should gain the shelter of the plantation.
Having arrived under cover of the trees, his first thought was of the gipsy's purse. He had accepted it without hesitation, though with something like a feeling of degradation, arising from the character of the person by whom he was thus accommodated. But it relieved him from a serious though temporary embarrassment. His money, excepting a very few shillings, was in his portmanteau, and that was in possession of Meg's friends. Some time was necessary to write to his agent, or even to apply to his good host at Charlie's Hope, who would gladly have supplied him. In the meantime he resolved to avail himself of Meg's subsidy, confident he should have a speedy opportunity of replacing it with a handsome gratuity. 'It can be but a trifling sum,' he said to himself, 'and I daresay the good lady may have a share of my banknotes to make amends.'
With these reflections he opened the leathern purse, expecting to find at most three or four guineas. But how much was he surprised to discover that it contained, besides a considerable quantity of gold pieces, of different coinages and various countries, the joint amount of which could not be short of a hundred pounds, several valuable rings and ornaments set with jewels, and, as appeared from the slight inspection he had time to give them, of very considerable value.
Brown was equally astonished and embarrassed by the circumstances in which he found himself, possessed, as he now appeared to be, of property to a much greater amount than his own, but which had been obtained in all probability by the same nefarious means through which he had himself been plundered. His first thought was to inquire after the nearest justice of peace, and to place in his hands the treasure of which he had thus unexpectedly become the depositary, telling at the same time his own remarkable story. But a moment's consideration brought several objections to this mode of procedure In the first place, by observing this course he should break his promise of silence, and might probably by that means involve the safety, perhaps the life, of this woman, who had risked her own to preserve his, and who had voluntarily endowed him with this treasure--a generosity which might thus become the means of her ruin. This was not to be thought of. Besides, he was a stranger, and for a time at least unprovided with means of establishing his own character and credit to the satisfaction of a stupid or obstinate country magistrate. 'I will think over the matter more maturely,' he said; 'perhaps there may be a regiment quartered at the county town, in which case my knowledge of the service and acquaintance with many officers of the army cannot fail to establish my situation and character by evidence which a civil judge could not sufficiently estimate. And then I shall have the commanding officer's assistance in managing matters so as to screen this unhappy madwoman, whose mistake or prejudice has been so fortunate for me. A civil magistrate might think himself obliged to send out warrants for her at once, and the consequence, in case of her being taken, is pretty evident. No, she has been upon honour with me if she were the devil, and I will be equally upon honour with her. She shall have the privilege of a court-martial, where the point of honour can qualify strict law. Besides, I may see her at this place, Kipple--Couple--what did she call it? and then I can make restitution to her, and e'en let the law claim its own when it can secure her. In the meanwhile, however, I cut rather an awkward figure for one who has the honour to bear his Majesty's commission, being little better than the receiver of stolen goods.'
With these reflections, Brown took from the gipsy's treasure three or four guineas, for the purpose of his immediate expenses, and, tying up the rest in the purse which contained them, resolved not again to open it until he could either restore it to her by whom it was given, or put it into the hands of some public functionary. He next thought of the cutlass, and his first impulse was to leave it in the plantation. But, when he considered the risk of meeting with these ruffians, he could not resolve on parting with his arms. His walking-dress, though plain, had so much of a military character as suited not amiss with his having such a weapon. Besides, though the custom of wearing swords by persons out of uniform had been gradually becoming antiquated, it was not yet so totally forgotten as to occasion any particular remark towards those who chose to adhere to it. Retaining, therefore, his weapon of defence, and placing the purse of the gipsy in a private pocket, our traveller strode gallantly on through the wood in search of the promised highroad.
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