Chapter XXIX. The Beast-Boy.
 

One morning they found, on reaching the manse, that the minister was very unwell, and that in consequence Miss Machar could not attend to Ginevra; they turned, therefore, to walk home again. Now the manse, upon another root of Glashgar, was nearer than Glashruach to Nicie's home, and many a time as she went and came, did she lift longing eyes to the ridge that hid it from her view. This morning, Ginevra observed that, every other moment, Nicie was looking up the side of the mountain, as if she saw something unusual upon it--occasionally, indeed, when the winding of the road turned their backs to it, stopping and turning round to gaze.

"What is the matter with you, Nicie?" she asked. "What are you looking at up there?"

"I'm won'erin' what my mother'll be deein'," answered Nicie: "she's up there."

"Up there!" exclaimed Ginny, and, turning, stared at the mountain too, expecting to perceive Nicie's mother somewhere upon the face of it.

"Na, na, missie! ye canna see her," said the girl; "she's no in sicht. She's ower ayont there. Only gien we war up whaur ye see yon twa three sheep again' the lift (sky), we cud see the bit hoosie whaur her an' my father bides."

"How I should like to see your father and mother, Nicie!" exclaimed Ginevra.

"Weel, I'm sure they wad be richt glaid to see yersel', missie, ony time 'at ye likit to gang an' see them."

"Why shouldn't we go now, Nicie? It's not a dangerous place, is it?"

"No, missie. Glashgar's as quaiet an' weel-behaved a hill as ony in a' the cweentry," answered Nicie, laughing. "She's some puir, like the lave o' 's, an' hasna muckle to spare, but the sheep get a feow nibbles upon her, here an' there; an' my mither manages to keep a coo, an' get plenty o' milk frae her tee."

"Come, then, Nicie. We have plenty of time. Nobody wants either you or me, and we shall get home before any one misses us."

Nicie was glad enough to consent; they turned at once to the hill, and began climbing. But Nicie did not know this part of it nearly so well as that which lay between Glashruach and the cottage, and after they had climbed some distance, often stopping and turning to look down on the valley below, the prospect of which, with its streams and river, kept still widening and changing as they ascended, they arrived at a place where the path grew very doubtful, and she could not tell in which of two directions they ought to go.

"I'll take this way, and you take that, Nicie," said Ginevra, "and if I find there is no path my way, I will come back to yours; and if you find there is no path your way, you will come back to mine."

It was a childish proposal, and one to which Nicie should not have consented, but she was little more than a child herself. Advancing a short distance in doubt, and the path re-appearing quite plainly, she sat down, expecting her little mistress to return directly. No thought of anxiety crossed her mind: how should one, in broad sunlight, on a mountain-side, in the first of summer, and with the long day before them? So, there sitting in peace, Nicie fell into a maidenly reverie, and so there Nicie sat for a long time, half dreaming in the great light, without once really thinking about anything. All at once she came to herself: some latent fear had exploded in her heart: yes! what could have become of her little mistress? She jumped to her feet, and shouted "Missie! Missie Galbraith! Ginny!" but no answer came back. The mountain was as still as at midnight. She ran to the spot where they had parted, and along the other path: it was plainer than that where she had been so idly forgetting herself. She hurried on, wildly calling as she ran.

In the mean time Ginevra, having found the path indubitable, and imagining it led straight to the door of Nicie's mother's cottage, and that Nicie would be after her in a moment, thinking also to have a bit of full with her, set off dancing and running so fast, that by the time Nicie came to herself, she was a good mile from her. What a delight it was to be thus alone upon the grand mountain! with the earth banished so far below, and the great rocky heap climbing and leading and climbing up and up towards the sky!

Ginny was not in the way of thinking much about God. Little had been taught her concerning him, and nothing almost that was pleasant to meditate upon--nothing that she could hide in her heart, and be dreadfully glad about when she lay alone in her little bed, listening to the sound of the burn that ran under her window. But there was in her soul a large wilderness ready for the voice that should come crying to prepare the way of the king.

The path was after all a mere sheep-track, and led her at length into a lonely hollow in the hill-side, with a swampy peat-bog at the bottom of it. She stopped. The place looked unpleasant, reminding her of how she always felt when she came unexpectedly upon Angus Mac Pholp. She would go no further alone; she would wait till Nicie overtook her. It must have been just in such places that the people possessed with devils--only Miss Machar always made her read the word, demons--ran about! As she thought thus, a lone-hearted bird uttered a single, wailing cry, strange to her ear. The cry remained solitary, unanswered, and then first suddenly she felt that there was nobody there but herself, and the feeling had in it a pang of uneasiness. But she was a brave child; nothing frightened her much except her father; she turned and went slowly back to the edge of the hollow: Nicie must by this time be visible.

In her haste and anxiety, however, Nicie had struck into another sheep-track, and was now higher up the hill; so that Ginny could see no living thing nearer than in the valley below: far down there--and it was some comfort, in the desolation that now began to invade her--she saw upon the road, so distant that it seemed motionless, a cart with a man in it, drawn by a white horse. Never in her life before had she felt that she was alone. She had often felt lonely, but she had always known where to find the bodily presence of somebody. Now she might cry and scream the whole day, and nobody answer! Her heart swelled into her throat, then sank away, leaving a wide hollow. It was so eerie! But Nicie would soon come, and then all would be well.

She sat down on a stone, where she could see the path she had come a long way back. But "never and never" did any Nicie appear. At last she began to cry. This process with Ginny was a very slow one, and never brought her much relief. The tears would mount into her eyes, and remain there, little pools of Baca, a long time before the crying went any further. But with time the pools would grow deeper, and swell larger, and at last, when they had become two huge little lakes, the larger from the slowness of their gathering, two mighty tears would tumble over the edges of their embankments, and roll down her white mournful cheeks. This time many more followed, and her eyes were fast becoming fountains, when all at once a verse she had heard the Sunday before at church seemed to come of itself into her head: "Call upon me in the time of trouble and I will answer thee." It must mean that she was to ask God to help her: was that the same as saying prayers? But she wasn't good, and he wouldn't hear anybody that wasn't good. Then, if he was only the God of the good people, what was to become of the rest when they were lost on mountains? She had better try; it could not do much harm. Even if he would not hear her, he would not surely be angry with her for calling upon him when she was in such trouble. So thinking, she began to pray to what dim distorted reflection of God there was in her mind. They alone pray to the real God, the maker of the heart that prays, who know his son Jesus. If our prayers were heard only in accordance with the idea of God to which we seem to ourselves to pray, how miserably would our infinite wants be met! But every honest cry, even if sent into the deaf ear of an idol, passes on to the ears of the unknown God, the heart of the unknown Father.

"O God, help me home again," cried Ginevra, and stood up in her great loneliness to return.

The same instant she spied, seated upon a stone, a little way off, but close to her path, the beast-boy. There could be no mistake. He was just as she had heard him described by the children at the gamekeeper's cottage. That was his hair sticking all out from his head, though the sun in it made it look like a crown of gold or a shining mist. Those were his bare arms, and that was dreadful indeed! Bare legs and feet she was used to; but bare arms! Worst of all, making it absolutely certain he was the beast-boy, he was playing upon a curious kind of whistling thing, making dreadfully sweet music to entice her nearer that he might catch her and tear her to pieces! Was this the answer God sent to the prayer she had offered in her sore need--the beast-boy? She asked him for protection and deliverance, and here was the beast-boy! She asked him to help her home, and there, right in the middle of her path, sat the beast-boy, waiting for her! Well, it was just like what they said about him on Sundays in the churches, and in the books Miss Machar made her read! But the horrid creature's music should not have any power over her! She would rather run down to the black water, glooming in those holes, and be drowned, than the beast-boy should have her to eat!

Most girls would have screamed, but such was not Ginny's natural mode of meeting a difficulty. With fear, she was far more likely to choke than to cry out. So she sat down again and stared at him. Perhaps he would go away when he found he could not entice her. He did not move, but kept playing on his curious instrument. Perhaps, by returning into the hollow, she could make a circuit, and so pass him, lower down the hill. She rose at once and ran.

Now Gibbie had seen her long before she saw him, but, from experience, was afraid of frightening her. He had therefore drawn gradually near, and sat as if unaware of her presence. Treating her as he would a bird with which he wanted to make better acquaintance, he would have her get accustomed to the look of him before he made advances. But when he saw her run in the direction of the swamp, knowing what a dangerous place it was, he was terrified, sprung to his feet, and darted off to get between her and the danger. She heard him coming like the wind at her back, and, whether from bewilderment, or that she did intend throwing herself into the water to escape him, instead of pursuing her former design, she made straight for the swamp. But was the beast-boy ubiquitous? As she approached the place, there he was, on the edge of a great hole half full of water, as if he had been sitting there for an hour! Was he going to drown her in that hole? She turned again, and ran towards the descent of the mountain. But there Gibbie feared a certain precipitous spot; and, besides, there was no path in that direction. So Ginevra had not run far before again she saw him right in her way. She threw herself on the ground in despair, and hid her face. After thus hunting her as a cat might a mouse, or a lion a man, what could she look for but that he would pounce upon her, and tear her to pieces? Fearfully expectant of the horrible grasp, she lay breathless. But nothing came. Still she lay, and still nothing came. Could it be that she was dreaming? In dreams generally the hideous thing never arrived. But she dared not look up. She lay and lay, weary and still, with the terror slowly ebbing away out of her. At length to her ears came a strange sweet voice of singing--such a sound as she had never heard before. It seemed to come from far away: what if it should be an angel God was sending, in answer after all to her prayer, to deliver her from the beast-boy! He would of course want some time to come, and certainly no harm had happened to her yet. The sound grew and grew, and came nearer and nearer. But although it was song, she could distinguish no vowel-melody in it, nothing but a tone-melody, a crooning, as it were, ever upon one vowel in a minor key. It came quite near at length, and yet even then had something of the far away sound left in it. It was like the wind of a summer night inside a great church bell in a deserted tower. It came close, and ceased suddenly, as if, like a lark, the angel ceased to sing the moment he lighted. She opened her eyes and looked up. Over her stood the beast-boy, gazing down upon her! Could it really be the beast-boy? If so, then he was fascinating her, to devour her the more easily, as she had read of snakes doing to birds; but she could not believe it. Still--she could not take her eyes off him--that was certain. But no marvel! From under a great crown of reddish gold, looked out two eyes of heaven's own blue, and through the eyes looked out something that dwells behind the sky and every blue thing. What if the angel, to try her, had taken to himself the form of the beast-boy? No beast-boy could sing like what she had heard, or look like what she now saw! She lay motionless, flat on the ground, her face turned sideways upon her hands, and her eyes fixed on the heavenly vision. Then a curious feeling began to wake in her of having seen him before--somewhere, ever so long ago--and that sight of him as well as this had to do with misery--with something that made a stain that would not come out. Yes--it was the very face, only larger, and still sweeter, of the little naked child whom Angus had so cruelly lashed! That was ages ago, but she had not forgotten, and never could forget either the child's back, or the lovely innocent white face that he turned round upon her. If it was indeed he, perhaps he would remember her. In any case, she was now certain he would not hurt her.

While she looked at him thus, Gibbie's face grew grave: seldom was his grave when fronting the face of a fellow-creature, but now he too was remembering, and trying to recollect; as through a dream of sickness and pain he saw a face like the one before him, yet not the same.

Ginevra recollected first, and a sweet slow diffident smile crept like a dawn up from the depth of her under-world to the sky of her face, but settled in her eyes, and made two stars of them. Then rose the very sun himself in Gibbie's, and flashed a full response of daylight--a smile that no woman, girl, or matron, could mistrust. From brow to chin his face was radiant. The sun of this world had made his nest in his hair, but the smile below it seemed to dim the aureole he wore. Timidly yet trustingly Ginevra took one hand from under her cheek, and stretched it up to him. He clasped it gently. She moved, and he helped her to rise.

"I've lost Nicie," she said.

Gibbie nodded, but did not look concerned,

"Nicie is my maid," said Ginevra.

Gibbie nodded several times. He knew who Nicie was rather better than her mistress.

"I left her away back there, a long, long time ago, and she has never come to me," she said.

Gibbie gave a shrill loud whistle that startled her. In a few seconds, from somewhere unseen, a dog came bounding to him over stones and heather. How he spoke to the dog, or what he told him to do, she had not an idea; but the next instant Oscar was rushing along the path she had come, and was presently out of sight. So full of life was Gibbie, so quick and decided was his every motion, so full of expression his every glance and smile, that she had not yet begun to wonder he had not spoken; indeed she was hardly yet aware of the fact. She knew him now for a mortal, but, just as it had been with Donal and his mother, he continued to affect her as a creature of some higher world, come down on a mission of good-will to men. At the same time she had, oddly enough, a feeling as if the beast-boy were still somewhere not far off, held aloof only by the presence of the angel who had assumed his shape.

Gibbie took her hand, and led her towards the path she had left; she yielded without a movement of question. But he did not lead her far in that direction; he turned to the left up the mountain. It grew wilder as they ascended. But the air was so thin and invigorating, the changes so curious and interesting, as now they skirted the edge of a precipitous rock, now scrambled up the steepest of paths by the help of the heather that nearly closed over it, and the reaction of relief from the terror she had suffered so exciting, that she never for a moment felt tired. Then they went down the side of a little burn--a torrent when the snow was dissolving, and even now a good stream, whose dance and song delighted her: it was the same, as she learned afterwards, to whose song under her window she listened every night in bed, trying in vain to make out the melted tune. Ever after she knew this, it seemed, as she listened, to come straight from the mountain to her window, with news of the stars and the heather and the sheep. They crossed the burn and climbed the opposite bank. Then Gibbie pointed, and there was the cottage, and there was Nicie coming up the path to it, with Oscar bounding before her! The dog was merry, but Nicie was weeping bitterly. They were a good way off, with another larger burn between; but Gibbie whistled, and Oscar came flying to him. Nicie looked up, gave a cry, and like a sheep to her lost lamb came running.

"Oh, missie!" she said, breathless, as she reached the opposite bank of the burn, and her tone had more than a touch of sorrowful reproach in it, "what garred ye rin awa'?"

"There was a road, Nicie, and I thought you would come after me."

"I was a muckle geese, missie; but eh! I'm glaid I hae gotten ye. Come awa' an' see my mother."

"Yes, Nicie. We'll tell her all about it. You see I haven't got a mother to tell, so I will tell yours."

From that hour Nicie's mother was a mother to Ginny as well.

"Anither o' 's lambs to feed!" she said to herself.

If a woman be a mother she may have plenty of children.

Never before had Ginny spent such a happy day, drunk such milk as Crummie's, or eaten such cakes as Janet's. She saw no more of Gibbie: the moment she was safe, he and Oscar were off again to the sheep, for Robert was busy cutting peats that day, and Gibbie was in sole charge. Eager to know about him, Ginevra gathered all that Janet could tell of his story, and in return told the little she had seen of it, which was the one dreadful point.

"Is he a good boy, Mistress Grant?" she asked.

"The best boy ever I kenned--better nor my ain Donal, an' he was the best afore him," answered Janet.

Ginny gave a little sigh, and wished she were good.

"Whan saw ye Donal?" asked Janet of Nicie.

"No this lang time--no sin' I was here last," answered Nicie, who did not now get home so often as the rest.

"I was thinkin'," returned her mother, "ye sud 'maist see him noo frae the back o' the muckle hoose; for he was tellin' me he was wi' the nowt' i' the new meadow upo' the Lorrie bank, 'at missie's papa boucht frae Jeames Glass."

"Ow, is he there?" said Nicie. "I'll maybe get sicht, gien I dinna get word o' him. He cam ance to the kitchen-door to see me, but Mistress Mac Farlane wadna lat him in. She wad hae nae loons comin' aboot the place she said. I said 'at hoo he was my brither. She said, says she, that was naething to her, an' she wad hae no brithers. My sister micht come whiles, she said, gien she camna ower aften; but lasses had naething to dee wi' brithers. Wha was to tell wha was or wha wasna my brither? I tellt her 'at a' my brithers was weel kenned for douce laads; an' she tellt me to haud my tongue, an' no speyk up; an' I cud hae jist gien her a guid cloot o' the lug--I was that angert wi' her."

"She'll be soary for't some day," said Janet, with a quiet smile; "an' what a body's sure to be soary for, ye may as weel forgie them at ance."

"Hoo ken ye, mither, she'll be soary for't?" asked Nicie, not very willing to forgive Mistress Mac Farlane.

"'Cause the Maister says 'at we'll hae to pey the uttermost fardin'. There's naebody 'ill be latten aff. We maun dee oor neiper richt."

"But michtna the Maister himsel' forgie her?" suggested Nicie, a little puzzled.

"Lassie," said her mother solemnly, "ye dinna surely think 'at the Lord's forgifness is to lat fowk aff ohn repentit? That wad be a strange fawvour to grant them! He winna hurt mair nor he can help; but the grue (horror) maun mak w'y for the grace. I'm sure it was sae whan I gied you yer whups, lass. I'll no say aboot some o' the first o' ye, for at that time I didna ken sae weel what I was aboot, an' was mair angert whiles nor there was ony occasion for--tuik my beam to dang their motes. I hae been sair tribled aboot it, mony's the time."

"Eh, mither!" said Nicie, shocked at the idea of her reproaching herself about anything concerning her children, "I'm weel sure there's no ane o' them wad think, no to say say, sic a thing."

"I daursay ye're richt there, lass. I think whiles a woman's bairns are like the God they cam frae--aye ready to forgie her onything."

Ginevra went home with a good many things to think about.