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‘I dislike that man,’ said Miss Phyllis, with energy.
‘I have liked others better,’ said the Earl.
There was silence for a little as they walked up the laurelled path, which wound by hazel thicket and fir-wood to the low ridges of moor.
‘I call him Charles Surface,’ said Miss Phyllis again, with a meditative air. ‘I am no dabbler in the water-colours of character, but I think I could describe him.’
‘Try,’ said the Earl.
‘Mr Charles Eden,’ began the girl, ‘is a man of talent. He has edged his way to fortune by dint of the proper enthusiasms and a seductive manner. He is a politician of repute and a lawyer of some practice, but his enemies say that like necessity he knows no law, and even his friends shrink from insisting upon his knowledge of politics. But he believes in all honest enthusiasms, temperance, land reform, and democracy with a capital D; he is, however, violently opposed to woman suffrage.’
‘Every man has his good points,’ murmured the Earl.
‘You are interrupting me,’ said Miss Phyllis, severely. ‘To continue, his wife was the daughter of a baronet of ancient family and scanty means. Her husband supplied the element which she missed in her father’s household, and today she is popular and her parties famous. Their house is commonly known as the Wilderness, because there the mixed multitude which came out of Egypt mingle with the chosen people. In character he is persuasive and good-natured; but then good-nature is really a vice which is called a virtue because it only annoys a man’s enemies.’
‘I am learning a great deal tonight,’ said the man.
‘You are,’ said Miss Phyllis. ‘But there, I have done. What I dislike in him is that one feels that he is the sort of man that has always lived in a house and is out of place anywhere but on a pavement.’
‘And you call this a sketch in water-colours?’
‘No, indeed. In oils,’ said the girl, and they walked through a gate on to the short bent grass and the bouldered face of a hill. Something in the place seemed to strike her, for she dropped her voice and spoke simply.
‘You know I am town-bred, but I am not urban in nature. I must chatter daily, but every now and then I grow tired of myself, and I hate people like Charles Eden who remind me of my weakness.’
‘Life,’ said the Earl, ‘may be roughly divided into — But there, it is foolish to be splitting up life by hairs on such a night.’
Now they stood on the ridge’s crest in the silver-grey light of a midsummer moon. Far up the long Gled valley they looked to the towering hills whence it springs; then to the left, where the sinuous Callowa wound its way beneath green and birk-clad mountains to the larger stream. In such a flood of brightness the far-distant peaks and shoulders stood out clear as day, but full of that hint of subtle and imperishable mystery with which the moon endows the great uplands in the height of summer. The air was still, save for the falling of streams and the twitter of nesting birds.
The girl stared wide-eyed at the scene, and her breath came softly with utter admiration.
‘Oh, such a land!’ she cried, ‘and I have never seen it before. Do you know I would give anything to explore these solitudes, and feel that I had made them mine. Will you take me with you?’
‘But these things are not for you, little woman,’ he said. ‘You are too clever and smart and learned in the minutiae of human conduct. You would never learn their secret. You are too complex for simple, old-world life.’
‘Please don’t say that,’ said Miss Phyllis, with pleading eyes. ‘Don’t think so hardly of me. I am not all for show.’ Then with fresh wonder she looked over the wide landscape.
‘Do you know these places?’ she asked.
‘I have wandered over them for ten years and more,’ said the Earl, ‘and I am beginning to love them. In other ten, perhaps, I shall have gone some distance on the road to knowledge. The best things in life take time and labour to reach.’
The girl made no answer. She had found a little knoll in the opposite glen, clothed in a tangle of fern and hazels, and she eagerly asked its name.
‘The folk here call it the Fairy Knowe,’ he said. ‘There is a queer story about it. They say that if any two people at mid-summer in the full moon walk from the east and west so as to meet at the top, they will find a third there, who will tell them all the future. The old men speak of it carefully, but none believe it.’
‘Oh, let us go and try,’ said the girl, in glee. ‘It is quite early in the evening, and they will never miss us at home.’
‘But the others,’ said he.
‘Oh, the others,’ with a gesture of amusement. ‘We left Mr Eden talking ideals to your mother, and the other men preparing for billiards. They won’t mind.’
‘But it’s more than half a mile, and you’ll be very tired.’
‘No, indeed,’ said the girl, ‘I could walk to the top of the farthest hills tonight. I feel as light as a feather, and I do so want to know the future. It will be such a score to speak to my aunt with the prophetic accent of the things to be.’
‘Then come on,’ said the Earl, and the two went off through the heather.
If you walk into the inn-kitchen at Callowa on a winter night, you will find it all but deserted, save for a chance traveller who is storm-stayed among the uncertain hills. Then men stay in their homes, for the place is little, and the dwellers in the remoter parts have no errand to town or village. But in the long nights of summer, when the moon is up and the hills dry underfoot, there are many folk down of an evening from the glens, and you may chance on men drinking a friendly glass with half a score of miles of journey before them. It is a cheerful scene — the wide room, with the twilight struggling with the new-lit lamp, the brown faces gathered around the table, and the rise and fall of the soft southern talk.
On this night you might have chanced on a special gathering, for it was the evening of the fair-day in Gledfoot, and many shepherds from the moors were eating their suppers and making ready for the road. It was then that Jock Rorison of the Redswirehead — known to all the world as Lang Jock to distinguish him from his cousin little Jock of the Nick o’ the Hurlstanes — met his most ancient friend, the tailor of Callowa. They had been at school together, together they had suffered the pains of learning; and now the one’s lot was cast at the back of Creation, and the other’s in a little dark room in the straggling street of Callowa. A bottle celebrated their meeting, and there and then in the half-light of the gloaming they fell into talk. They spoke of friends and kin, and the toils of their life; of village gossip and market prices. Thence they drifted into vague moralisings and muttered exhortation in the odour of whisky. Soon they were amiable beyond their wont, praising each other’s merit, and prophesying of good fortune. And then — alas for human nature! — there came the natural transition to argument and reviling.
‘I wadna be you, Jock, for a thousand pounds’, said the tailor. ‘Na, I wadna venture up that lang mirk glen o’ yours for a’ the wealth o’ the warld.’
‘Useless body,’ said the shepherd, ‘and what for that?’
‘Bide a’ nicht here,’ said the tailor, ‘and step on in the mornin’. Man, ye’re an auld freend, and I’m wae to think that aucht ill should befa’ ye.’
‘Will ye no speak sense for yince, ye doited cratur?’ was the ungracious answer, as the tall man rose to unhook his staff from the chimney corner. ‘I’m for stertin’ if I’m to win hame afore mornin’.
‘Weel,’ said the tailor, with the choked voice of the maudlin, ‘a’ I’ve to say is that I wis the Lord may protect ye, for there’s evil lurks i’ the dens o’ the way, saith the prophet. ‘Stop, John Rorison, stop,’ again the tailor groaned. ‘O man, bethink ye o’ your end.’
‘I wis ye wad bethink o’ yin yoursel’.’
The tailor heeded not the rudeness . . . ‘for ye ken a’ the auld queer owercomes about the Gled Water. Yin Thomas the Rhymer made a word on ‘t. Quoth he,
By the Gled side The guid folk bide.
‘Dodsake, Robin, ye’re a man o’ learnin’ wi’ your poetry,’ said the shepherd, with scorn. ‘Rhymin’ about auld wives’ havers, sic wark for a grown man!’
A vague recollection of wrath rose to the tailor’s mind. But he answered with the laborious dignity of argument —
‘I’m no sayin’ that a’ things are true that the body said. But I say this — that there’s a heap o’ queer things in the warld, mair nor you nor me nor onybody kens. Now, it’s weel ken’t that nane o’ the folk about here like to gang to the Fairy Knowe . . . ’
‘It’s weel ken’t nae siccan thing,’ said the shepherd, rudely, ‘I wonder at you, a kirk member and an honest man’s son, crakin’ siccan blethers.’
‘I’m affirmin’ naething,’ said the other, sententiously. ‘What I say is that nae man, woman, or child in this parish, which is weel ken’t for an intelligent yin, wad like to gang at the rising o’ the mune up the side o’ the Fairy Knowe. And it’s weel ken’t, tae, that when the twae daft lads frae the Rochan tried it in my faither’s day and gaed up frae opposite airts, they met at the tap that which celled them a’ that they ever did and a’ that was ever like to befa’ them, and put the fear o’ death on them for ever and ever. Mind, I’m affirmin’ naething; but what think ye o’ that?’.
‘I think this o’ ‘t — that either the folk were mair fou than the Baltic or they were weak i’ the held afore ever they set out. But I’m tired o’ hearin’ a sensible man bletherin’, so I’m awa’ to the Redswirehead.’
But the tailor was swollen with pride and romance, and filled with the audacity which comes from glasses replenished.
‘Then I’ll gang a bit o’ the road wi’ ye.’
‘And what for sae?’ said the shepherd, darkly suspicious. Whisky drove care to his head, and made him the most irritable of friends.
‘I want the air, and it’s graund munelicht. Your road gangs by the Knowe, and we micht as weel mak the experiment. Mind ye, I’m affirmin’ naething.’
‘Will ye no haud your tongue about what ye’re affirmin’?’
‘But I hold that it is a wise man’s pairt to try all things, and whae kens but there micht be some queer sicht on that Knowe-tap? The auld folk were nane sae ready to be inventin’ havers.’
‘I think the man’s mad,’ was the shepherd’s loud soliloquy. ‘You want me to gang and play daft-like pranks late at nicht among birks and stanes on a muckle knowe. Weel, let it be. It lies on my road hame, but ye’d be weel serv’t if some auld Druid cam out and grippit ye.’
‘Whae’s bletherin’ now,’ cried the tallor, triumphantly. ‘I dinna gang wi’ only supersteetions. I gang to get the fresh air and admire the wonderfu’ works o’ God. Hech, but they’re bonny.’ And he waved a patronising finger to the moon.
The shepherd took him by the shoulder and marched him down the road. ‘Listen,’ said he, ‘I maun be hame afore the morn, and if ye’re comin’ wi’ me ye’ll hae to look smerter.’ So down the white path and over Gled bridge they took their way, two argumentative figures, clamouring in the silent, amber spaces of the night.
The farmer of the Lowe Moss was a choleric man at all times, but every now and again his temper failed him utterly. He was florid and full-blooded, and the hot weather drove him wild with discomfort. Then came the torments of a dusty market and completed the task; so it fell out that on that evening in June he drove home at a speed which bade fair to hurry him to a premature grave, and ate his supper with little thankfulness.
Then he reflected upon his manifold labours. The next day was the clipping, and the hill sheep would have to be brought down in the early morning. The shepherds would be at the folds by seven, and it would mean rising in the small hours to have the flocks in the low fields in time. Now his own shepherd was gone on an errand and would not be back till the morrow’s breakfast. This meant that he, the wearied, the sorely tried, must be up with the lark and tramping the high pastures. The thought was too much for him. He could not face it. There would be no night’s rest for his wearied legs, though the Lord knew how he needed it.
But as he looked through the window a thought grew upon his mind. He was tired and sore — but he might yet manage an hour or two of toil, if a sure prospect of rest lay at the end. The moon was up and bright, and he might gather the sheep to the low meadows as easily as in the morning. This would suffer him to sleep in peace to the hour of seven, which was indulgence indeed to one who habitually rose at five. He was a man of imagination and hope, who valued a prospect. Far better, he held, the present discomfort, if the certainty of ease lay before him. So he gathered his aching members, reached for his stick, whistled on his dogs, and set out.
It was a long climb up the ridges of the Lowe Burn to the stell of fir-trees which marked his boundaries. Then began the gathering of the sheep, and a great scurry of dogs, — black dots on the sleepy, moon-lit hill. With much crying of master and barking of man the flocks were massed and turned athwart the slopes in the direction of the steading. All the while he limped grumblingly behind, thinking on bed, and leaving everything to his shaggy lieutenants. Then they crossed the Lowe Burn, skirted the bog, and came in a little to the lower meadows, while afar off over the rough crest of the Fairy Knowe twinkled the lights of the farm.
Meanwhile from another point of the hill there came another wayfarer to the same goal. The Sentimentalist was a picturesque figure on holiday, enjoying the summer in the way that still remains the best. Three weeks before he had flung the burden of work from his shoulders, and gone with his rod to the Callowa foot, whence he fished far and near even to the utmost recesses of the hills. On this evening the soft airs and the triumphant moon had brought him out of doors. He had a dim memory of a fragrant hazelled knoll above the rocky Gled, which looked up and down three valleys. The place drew him, as it lived in his memory, and he must needs get his plaid and cross the miles of heather to the wished-for sleeping-place. There he would bide the night and see the sunrise, and haply the next morning make a raid into the near village to receive letters delayed for weeks.
He crossed the hill when the full white glory of the moon was already apparent in the valleys. The air was so still and mild that one might have slept there and then on the bare hillside and been no penny the worse. The heart of the Sentimentalist was cheered, and he scanned the prospect with a glad thankfulness. To think that three weeks ago he had been living in sultriness and dreary over-work, with a head as dazed as a spinning-top and a ruin of nerves. Now every faculty was alive and keen, he had no thought of nerves, and his old Norfolk jacket, torn and easy, now stained with peat-water and now bleached with weather, was an index to his immediate past. In a little it would be all over, and then once more the dust and worry and heat. But meantime he was in fairyland, where there was little need for dreary prognostication.
And in truth it was a fairyland which dawned on his sight at the crest of the hill. A valley filled with hazy light, and in the middle darkly banded by the stream. All things, village, knoll, bog, and coppice, bright with a duskiness which revealed nought in detail, but only hints of form and colour. A noise of distant sheep rose from the sleeping place, and the single, solitary note of a night-bird far over the glen. At his foot were crushed thickets of little hill-flowers, thyme and pansies and the odorous bog-myrtle. Beneath him, not half a mile distant, was a mound with two lone birches on its summit, and he knew the place of his quest. This was the far-famed Fairy Knowe, where at midsummer the little folk danced, and where, so ran the tale, lay the mystic entrance, of which True Thomas spake, to the kingdom of dreams and shadows. Twenty-five miles distant a railway ran, but here there were still simplicity and antique tales. So in a fine spirit he set himself to the tangled meadow-land which intervened.
Miss Phyllis looked long and wonderingly at the tangled, moonlit hill. ‘Is this the place?’ she asked.
The Earl nodded. ‘Do you feel devout, madam,’ said he, ‘and will you make the experiment?’
Miss Phyllis looked at him gravely. ‘Have I not scrambled over miles of bog, and do you think that I have risked my ankles for nothing? Besides I was always a devout believer.’
‘Then this is the way of it. You wait here and walk slowly up, while I will get to the other side. There is always a wonderful view at least on the top.’
‘But I am rather afraid that I . . . ’
‘Oh, very well,’ said the Earl. ‘If we don’t perform our part, how can we expect a hard-worked goblin to do his?’
‘Then,’ said Miss Phyllis, with tight lips and a sigh of melodrama, ‘lead on, my lord.’ And she watched his figure disappear with some misgiving.
For a little she scanned the patched shadow of birk and fern, and listened uneasily to the rustle of grasses. She heard the footsteps cease, and then rise again in the silence. Suddenly it seemed as if the place had come to life. A crackling, the noise of something in lumbering motion, came from every quarter. Then there would be a sound of scampering, and again the echo of heavy breathing. Now Miss Phyllis was not superstitious, and very little of a coward. Moreover, she was a young woman of the world, with a smattering of most things in heaven and earth, and the airs of an infinite experience. But this moonlit knoll, this wide-stretching, fantastic landscape, and the lucid glamour of the night, cast a spell on her, and for once she forgot everything. Miss Phyllis grew undeniably afraid.
She glanced timorously to the left, whence came the sounds, and then with commendable spirit began to climb the slope. If things were so queer she might reasonably carry out the letter of her injunctions, and in any case the Earl would be there to meet her. But the noise grew stranger, the sound of rustling and scrambling and breathing as if in the chase. Then to her amazement a crackle of twigs rose from her right, and as she hastily turned her head to meet the new alarum, she found herself face to face with a tall man in a plaid.
For one moment both stared in frank discomfiture. Miss Phyllis was horribly alarmed and in deepest mystery. But, she began to reflect, spirits have never yet been known to wear Norfolk jackets and knickerbockers, or take the guise of stalwart, brown-faced men. The Sentimentalist, too, after the natural surprise, recovered himself and held out his hand.
‘How do you do, Miss Phyllis?’ said he.
The girl gasped, and then a light of recognition came into her eyes.
‘What are you doing here, Mr Grey?’ she asked.
‘Surely I have the first right to the question,’ the man said, smiling.
‘Then, if you must know, I am looking for the customary spirit to tell the future. I thought you were the thing, and was fearfully scared.’
‘But who told you that story, Miss Phyllis? I did not think you would have been so credulous. Your part was always the acute critic’s.’
‘Then you were wrong,’ said the girl, with emphasis. ‘Besides, it was Charlie Erskine’s doing. He brought me here, and is faithfully keeping his compact at the other side of the hill.’
‘Well, well, Callowa had always a queer way of entertaining his guests. But there, Miss Phyllis, I have not seen civilisation for weeks, and am half inclined to believe in things myself. Never again shall you taunt me with “boyish enthusiasm”. Was not that your phrase?’
‘I have sinned,’ said the girl, ‘but don’t talk of it. Henceforth I belong to the sentimentalists. But you must not spoil my plans. I must get to the top and wait devoutly on the tertium quid. You can wait here or go round the foot and meet us at the other side. You have made me feel sceptical already.’
‘I am at your service, my lady, and I hope you will get good news from the fairy-folk when . . . ’
But at this juncture something held the speech and eyes of both. A figure came wildly over the brow of the hill, as if running for dear life, and took the slope in great bounds through brake and bramble and heather-tussock. Onward it came with frantic arms and ineffectual cries. Suddenly it caught sight of the two as they stood at the hill-foot, the girl in white which showed dimly beneath her cloak, and the square figure of the man. It drew itself up in a spasm, stood one moment in uncomprehending terror, and then flung itself whimpering at their feet.
The full history of the events of these minutes has yet to be written. But such is the rough outline of the process of disaster.
It appears that the farmer of the Lowe Moss was driving his sheep in comfort with the aid of his collies, and had just crossed the meadowland and come to the edge of the Knowe. He was not more than half a mile from home, and he was wearied utterly. There still remained the maze of tree-roots and heaps of stones known as the Broken Dykes, and here it was hard to drive beasts even in the clear moonlight. So as he looked to the far lights of his home his temper began to break, and he vehemently abused his dogs.
Just at the foot of the slope there is a nick in the dyke, and far on either side stretches the hazel tangle. If once sheep get there it is hard for the best of collies to recover them in short time. But the flock was heading right, narrow in front, marshalled by vigilant four-footed watchmen, with the leaders making straight for the narrow pass. Then suddenly something happened beyond human expectation. In front of the drove the figure of a man arose as if from the ground. It was enough for the wild hill-sheep. To right and left they scattered, flanked in their race by the worn-out dogs, and in two minutes were far and wide among the bushes.
For a moment in the extremity of his disgust the farmer’s power of thought and speech forsook him. Then he looked at the cause of all the trouble. He knew the figure for that of a wandering dealer with whom he had long fought bitter warfare. Doubtless the man had come there by night to spy out the nakedness of his flock and report accordingly. In any case he had been warned off the land before, and the farmer had many old grudges against him. The memory of all overtook him at the moment and turned his brain. He rubbed his eyes. No, there could be no mistaking that yellow top-coat and that scraggy figure. So with stick upraised he ran for the intruder.
When the Earl saw the sheep fleeing wide and an irate man rushing toward him, his first impulse was to run. What possible cause could lead a man to drive sheep at night among rough meadows? But the next instant all hope of escape was at an end, for the foe was upon him. He had just time to leap aside and escape a great blow from a stick, and then he found himself in a fierce grapple with a thick-set, murderous ruffian.
Meanwhile the shepherd of the Redswirehead and the tailor of Callowa had left the high-road and tramped over the moss to the Knowe-foot. The tailor’s wine-begotten bravery was somewhat lessened by the still spaces of country and the silent eye of night. His companion had no thought in the matter save to get home, and if his way lay over the crest of the Fairy Knowe it mattered little to him. But when they left the high-road it became necessary to separate, if the correct fashion of the thing were to be observed. The shepherd must slacken pace and make for the near side of the hill, while the tailor would hasten to the other, and the twain would meet at the top.
The shepherd had no objection to going slowly. He lit his pipe and marched with measured tread over the bracken-covered meadows. The tailor set out gaily for the farther side, but ere he had gone far his spirits sank. Fairy tales and old wives’ fables had still a measure of credence with him, and this was the sort of errand on which he had never before embarked. He was flying straight in the face of all his most cherished traditions in company with a godless shepherd who believed in nothing but his own worthiness. He began to grow nervous and wish that he were safe in the Callowa Inn instead of scrambling on a desert hill. Yet the man had a vestige of pluck which kept him from turning back, and a fragment of the sceptical which gave him hope.
At the Broken Dykes he halted and listened. Some noise came floating over the tangle other than the fitful bleat of sheep or the twitter of birds. He listened again, and there it came, a crashing and swaying, and a confused sound as of a man muttering. Every several hair bristled on his unhappy head, till he reflected that it must be merely a bullock astray among the bushes, and with some perturbation hastened on his way. He fought through the clinging hazels, knee-deep in bracken, and stumbling ever and again over a rock of heather. The excitement of the climb for a moment drove out his terrors, and with purple face and shortened breath he gained the open. And there he was rooted still, for in the middle a desperate fight was being fought by two unearthly combatants.
He had the power left to recognise that both had the semblance of men and the dress of mortals. But never for a moment was he deceived. He knew of tales without end which told of unearthly visitants meeting at midnight on the lone hillside to settle their ghostly feuds. And even as he looked the mantle of one blew apart, and a glimpse of something strange and white appeared beneath. This was sufficient for the tailor. With a gasp he turned to the hill and climbed it like a deer, moaning to himself in his terror. Over the crest he went and down the other slope, flying wildly over little craigs, diving headlong every now and again into tussocks of bent, or struggling in a maze of birches. Then, or ever he knew, he was again among horrors. A woman with a fluttering white robe stood before him, and by her a man of strange appearance and uncanny height. He had no time to think, but his vague impression was of sheeted ghosts and awful terrors. His legs failed, his breath gave out at last, and he was floundering helplessly at Miss Phyllis’ feet.
Meantime, as the young man and the girl gazed mutely at this new visitant, there entered from the left another intruder, clad in home-spun, with a mighty crook in his hand and a short black pipe between his teeth. He raised his eyes slightly at the vision of the two, but heaven and earth did not contain what might disturb his composure. But at the sight of the prostrate tailor he stopped short, and stared. Slowly the thing dawned upon his brain. The sense of the ludicrous, which dwelled far down in his heart, was stirred to liveliness, and with legs apart he woke the echoes in boisterous mirth.
‘God, but it’s guid,’ and he wiped his eyes on his sleeve. ‘That man,’ and again the humour of the situation shook him, ‘that man thocht to frichten me wi’ his ghaists and bogles, and look at him!’
The tallor raised his scared eyes to the newcomer. ‘Dinna blaspheme, Jock Rorison,’ he moaned with solemn unction. ‘I hae seen it, the awfu’ thing — twae men fechtin’ a ghaistly battle, and yin o’ them wi’ the licht shinin’ through his breist-bane.’
‘Hearken to him,’ said the shepherd, jocularly. ‘The wicked have digged a pit,’ he began with dignity, and then farcically ended with ‘and tumbled in ‘t themsel’.’
But Miss Phyllis thought fit to seek a clue to the mystery. ‘Please tell me what is the meaning of all this,’ she asked her companion.
‘Why, the man has seen Callowa, and fled.’
‘But he speaks of two and a “ghaistly combat”.’
‘Then Callowa with his usual luck has met the spirit of the place and fallen out with him. I think we had better go and see.’
But the tailor only shivered at the thought, till the long shepherd forcibly pulled him to his feet, and dragged his reluctant steps up the side of the hill.
The combat at the back of the knowe had gone on merrily enough till the advent of the tallor. Both were men of muscle, well-matched in height and years, and they wrestled with vigour and skill. The farmer was weary at the start, but his weariness was less fatigue than drowsiness, and as he warmed to his work he felt his strength returning. The Earl knew nothing of the game; he had not wrestled in his youth with strong out-of-door labourers, and his only resources were a vigorous frame and uncommon agility. But as the minutes passed and both breathed hard, the younger man began to feel that he was losing ground. He could scarce stand out against the strain on his arms, and his ankles ached with the weight which pressed on them.
Now it fell out that just as the tailor arrived on the scene the farmer made a mighty effort and all but swung his opponent from his feet. In the wrench that followed, the buttons of the Earl’s light overcoat gave way, and to the farmer’s astonished gaze an expanse of white shirt-front was displayed. For a second he relaxed his hold, while the other freed himself and leaped back to recover breath.
Slowly it dawned upon the farmer’s intelligence that this was no cattle-dealer with whom he contended. Cattle-dealers do not habitually wear evening clothes when they have any work of guile on hand. And then gradually the flushed features before him awoke recognition. The next moment he could have sunk beneath the ground with confusion, for in this nightly marauder who had turned his sheep he saw no other than the figure of his master, the laird of all the countryside.
For a little the power of speech was denied him, and he stared blankly and shamefacedly while the Earl recovered his scattered wits. Then he murmured hoarsely —
‘I hope your lordship will forgi’e me. I never thocht it was yoursel’, for I wad dae onything rather than lift up my hand against ye. I thocht it was an ill-daein’ dealer frae east the country, whae has cheated me often, and I was vexed at his turnin’ the sheep, seein’ that I’ve had a lang day’s wander.’ Then he stopped, for he was a man of few words and he could go no further in apology.
Then the Earl, who had entered into the fight in a haphazard spirit, without troubling to enquire its cause, put the fitting end to the strained relations. He was convulsed with laughter, deep and overpowering. Little by little the farmer’s grieved face relaxed, and he joined in the mirth, till these two made the silent place echo with unwonted sounds.
To them thus engaged entered a company of four, Miss Phyllis, the Sentimentalist, the shepherd, and the tallor. Six astonished human beings stood exchanging scrutinies under the soft moon. With the tailor the mood was still terror, with the shepherd careless amazement, and with the other two unquenchable mirth. For the one recognised the irate, and now apologetic, farmer of the Lowe Moss and the straggling sheep which told a tale to the observant; while both saw in the other of the dishevelled and ruddy combatants the once respectable form of a friend.
Then spoke the farmer:—
‘What’s ta’en a’ the folk? This knowe’s like a kirk skallin’. And, dod, there’s Jock Rorison. Is this your best road to the Redswirehead, Jock?’
But the shepherd and his friend were speechless for they had recognised their laird, and the whole matter was beyond their understanding.
‘Now,’ said Miss Phyllis, ‘here’s a merry meeting. I have seen more wonders tonight than I can quite comprehend. First, there comes Mr Grey from nowhere in particular with a plaid on his shoulders; then a man with a scared face tumbles at our feet; then another comes to look for him; and now here you are, and you seem to have been fighting. These hills of yours are worse than any fairyland, and, do you know, they are rather exhausting.’
Meantime the Earl was solemnly mopping his brow and smiling on the assembly. ‘By George,’ he muttered, and then his breath failed him and he could only chuckle. He looked at the tallor, and the sight of that care-ridden face again choked him with laughter.
‘I think we have all come across too many spirits tonight,’ he said, ‘and they have been of rather substantial flesh and bone. At least so I found it. Have you learned much about the future, Miss Phyllis?’
The girl looked shyly at her side, ‘Mr Grey has been trying to teach me,’ said she.
The Earl laughed with great good-nature. ‘Midsummer madness,’ he said. ‘The moon has touched us all.’ And he glanced respectfully upward, where the White Huntress urged her course over the steeps of heaven.
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