One Wrong Step.
Chapter I.
 

"There's few folk ken Ragon Torr as I do, mother. He is better at heart than thou wad think; indeed he is!"

"If better were within, better wad come out, John. He's been drunk or dovering i' the chimney-corner these past three weeks. Hech! but he'd do weel i' Fool's Land, where they get half a crown a day for sleeping."

"There's nane can hunt a seal or spear a whale like Ragon; thou saw him theesel', mother, among the last school i' Stromness Bay."

"I saw a raving, ranting heathen, wi' the bonnie blue bay a sea o' blood around him, an' he shouting an' slaying like an old pagan sea-king. Decent, God-fearing fisher-folk do their needful wark ither gate than yon. Now there is but one thing for thee to do: thou must break wi' Ragon Torr, an' that quick an' soon."

"Know this, my mother, a friend is to be taken wi' his faults."

"Thou knows this, John: I hae forty years mair than thou hast, an' years ken mair than books. An' wi' a' thy book skill hast thou ne'er read that 'Evil communications corrupt gude manners'? Mak up thy mind that I shall tak it vera ill if thou sail again this year wi' that born heathen;" and with these words Dame Alison Sabay rose up from the stone bench at her cottage door and went dourly into the houseplace.

John stood on the little jetty which ran from the very doorstep into the bay, and looked thoughtfully over towards the sweet green isle of Graemsay; but neither the beauty of land or sea, nor the splendor of skies bright with the rosy banners of the Aurora gave him any answer to the thoughts which troubled him. "I'll hae to talk it o'er wi' Christine," he said decidedly, and he also turned into the house.

Christine was ten years older than her brother John. She had known much sorrow, but she had lived through and lived down all her trials and come out into the peace on the other side. She was sitting by the peat fire knitting, and softly crooning an old Scotch psalm to the click of her needles. She answered John's look with a sweet, grave smile, and a slight nod towards the little round table, upon which there was a plate of smoked goose and some oaten cake for his supper.

"I carena to eat a bite, Christine; this is what I want o' thee: the skiff is under the window; step into it, an' do thou go on the bay wi' me an hour."

"I havena any mind to go, John. It is nine by the clock, an' to-morrow the peat is to coil an' the herring to kipper; yes, indeed."

"Well an' good. But here is matter o' mair account than peat an' herring. Wilt thou come?"

"At the end I ken weel thou wilt hae thy way. Mother, here is John, an' he is for my going on the bay wi' him."

"Then thou go. If John kept aye as gude company he wouldna be like to bring my gray hairs wi' sorrow to the grave."

John did not answer this remark until they had pushed well off from the sleeping town, then he replied fretfully, "Yes, what mother says is true enough; but a man goes into the warld. A' the fingers are not alike, much less one's friends. How can a' be gude?"

"To speak from the heart, John, wha is it?"

"Ragon Torr. Thou knows we hae sat i' the same boat an' drawn the same nets for three years; he is gude an' bad, like ither folk."

"Keep gude company, my brother, an' thou wilt aye be counted ane o' them. When Ragon is gude he is ower gude, and when he is bad he is just beyont kenning."

"Can a man help the kin he comes o'? Have not his forbears done for centuries the vera same way? Naething takes a Norseman frae his bed or his cup but some great deed o' danger or profit; but then wha can fight or wark like them?"

"Christ doesna ask a man whether he be Norse or Scot. If Ragon went mair to the kirk an' less to the change-house, he wouldna need to differ. Were not our ain folk cattle-lifting Hieland thieves lang after the days o' the Covenant?"

"Christine, ye'll speak nae wrang o' the Sabays. It's an ill bird 'files its ain nest."

"Weel, weel, John! The gude name o' the Sabays is i' thy hands now. But to speak from the heart, this thing touches thee nearer than Ragon Torr. Thou did not bring me out to speak only o' him."

"Thou art a wise woman, Christine, an' thou art right. It touches Margaret Fae, an' when it does that, it touches what is dearer to me than life."

"I see it not."

"Do not Ragon an' I sail i' Peter Fae's boats? Do we not eat at his table, an' bide round his house during the whole fishing season? If I sail no more wi' Ragon, I must quit Peter's employ; for he loves Ragon as he loves no ither lad i' Stromness or Kirkwall. The Norse blood we think little o', Peter glories in; an' the twa men count thegither o'er their glasses the races o' the Vikings, an' their ain generations up to Snorro an' Thorso."

"Is there no ither master but Peter Fae? ask theesel' that question, John."

"I hae done that, Christine. Plenty o' masters, but nane o' them hae Margaret for a daughter. Christine, I love Margaret, an' she loves me weel. Thou hast loved theesel', my sister."

"I ken that, John," she said tenderly; "I hae loved, therefore I hae got beyont doots, an' learned something holier than my ain way. Thou trust Margaret now. Thou say 'Yes' to thy mother, an' fear not."

"Christine thou speaks hard words."

"Was it to speak easy anes thou brought me here? An' if I said, 'I counsel thee to tak thy ain will i' the matter,' wad my counsel mak bad gude, or wrang right? Paul Calder's fleet sails i' twa days; seek a place i' his boats."

"Then I shall see next to naught o' Margaret, an' Ragon will see her every day."

"If Margaret loves thee, that can do thee nae harm."

"But her father favors Ragon, an' of me he thinks nae mair than o' the nets, or aught else that finds his boats for sea."

"Well an' good; but no talking can alter facts. Thou must now choose atween thy mother an' Margaret Fae, atween right an' wrang. God doesna leave that choice i' the dark; thy way may be narrow an' unpleasant, but it is clear enough. Dost thou fear to walk i' it?"

"There hae been words mair than plenty, Christine. Let us go hame."

Silently the little boat drifted across the smooth bay, and silently the brother and sister stood a moment looking up the empty, flagged street of the sleeping town. The strange light, which was neither gloaming nor dawning, but a mixture of both, the waving boreal banners, the queer houses, gray with the storms of centuries, the brown undulating heaths, and the phosphorescent sea, made a strangely solemn picture which sank deep into their hearts. After a pause, Christine went into the house, but John sat down on the stone bench to think over the alternatives before him.

Now the power of training up a child in the way it should go asserted itself. It became at once a fortification against self-will. John never had positively disobeyed his mother's explicit commands; he found it impossible to do so. He must offer his services to Paul Calder in the morning, and try to trust Margaret Fae's love for him.

He had determined now to do right, but he did not do it very pleasantly--it is a rare soul that grows sweeter in disappointments. Both mother and sister knew from John's stern, silent ways that he had chosen the path of duty, and they expected that he would make it a valley of Baca. This Dame Alison accepted as in some sort her desert. "I ought to hae forbid the lad three years syne," she said regretfully; "aft ill an' sorrow come o' sich sinfu' putting aff. There's nae half-way house atween right an' wrang."

Certainly the determination involved some unpleasant explanations to John. He must first see old Peter Fae and withdraw himself from his service. He found him busy in loading a small vessel with smoked geese and kippered fish, and he was apparently in a very great passion. Before John could mention his own matters, Peter burst into a torrent of invectives against another of his sailors, who, he said, had given some information to the Excise which had cost him a whole cargo of Dutch specialties. The culprit was leaning against a hogshead, and was listening to Peter's intemperate words with a very evil smile.

"How much did ye sell yoursel' for, Sandy Beg? It took the son of a Hieland robber like you to tell tales of a honest man's cargo. It was an ill day when the Scots cam to Orkney, I trow."

"She'll hae petter right to say tat same 'fore lang time." And Sandy's face was dark with a subdued passion that Peter might have known to be dangerous, but which he continued to aggravate by contemptuous expressions regarding Scotchmen in general.

This John Sabay was in no mood to bear; he very soon took offence at Peter's sweeping abuse, and said he would relieve him at any rate of one Scot. "He didna care to sail again wi' such a crowd as Peter gathered round him."

It was a very unadvised speech. Ragon lifted it at once, and in the words which followed John unavoidably found himself associated with Sandy Beg, a man whose character was of the lowest order. And he had meant to be so temperate, and to part with both Peter and Ragon on the best terms possible. How weak are all our resolutions! John turned away from Peter's store conscious that he had given full sway to all the irritation and disappointment of his feelings, and that he had spoken as violently as either Peter, Ragon, or even the half-brutal Sandy Beg. Indeed, Sandy had said very little; but the malignant look with which he regarded Peter, John could never forget.

This was not his only annoyance. Paul Calder's boats were fully manned, and the others had already left for Brassey's Sound. The Sabays were not rich; a few weeks of idleness would make the long Orkney winter a dreary prospect. Christine and his mother sat from morning to night braiding straw into the once famous Orkney Tuscans, and he went to the peat-moss to cut a good stock of winter fuel; but his earnings in money were small and precarious, and he was so anxious that Christine's constant cheerfulness hurt him.

Sandy Beg had indeed said something of an offer he could make "if shentlemans wanted goot wages wi' ta chance of a lucky bit for themsel's; foive kuineas ta month an' ta affsets. Oigh! oigh!" But John had met the offer with such scorn and anger that Sandy had thought it worth while to bestow one of his most wicked looks upon him. The fact was, Sandy felt half grateful to John for his apparent partisanship, and John indignantly resented any disposition to put him in the same boat with a man so generally suspected and disliked.

"It might be a come-down," he said, "for a gude sailor an' fisher to coil peats and do days' darg, but it was honest labor; an', please God, he'd never do that i' the week that wad hinder him fra going to the kirk on Sabbath."

"Oigh! she'll jist please hersel'; she'll pe owing ta Beg naething by ta next new moon." And with a mocking laugh Sandy loitered away towards the seashore.