One Wrong Step.
Chapter IV.

The bailies, after hearing the deposition, immediately repaired to John Sabay's cottage. It was Saturday night, and no warrant could now be got, but the murderer must be secured. No two men bent on such an errand ever found it more difficult to execute. The little family had sat later than usual. John had always news they were eager to hear--of tourists and strangers he had seen in Wick, or of the people the steamer had brought to Kirkwall.

He was particularly cheerful this evening; his interview with Margaret had been hopeful and pleasant, and Christine had given the houseplace and the humble supper-table quite a festival look. They had sat so long over the meal that when the bailies entered John was only then reading the regular portion for the evening exercise. All were a little amazed at the visit, but no one thought for a moment of interrupting the Scripture; and the two men sat down and listened attentively while John finished the chapter.

Bailie Tulloch then rose and went towards the dame. He was a far-off cousin of the Sabays, and, though not on the best of terms with them, his relationship was considered to impose the duty particularly on him.

"Gude-e'en, if thou comes on a gude errand," said old Dame Alison, suspiciously; "but that's no thy custom, bailie."

"I came, dame, to ask John anent Peter Fae."

The dame laughed pleasantly. "If thou had asked him anent Margaret Fae, he could tell thee more about it."

"This is nae laughing matter, dame. Peter Fae has been murdered--yes, murdered! An' he said, ere he died, that John Sabay did the deed."

"Then Peter Fae died wi' a lie on his lips--tell them that, John," and the old woman's face was almost majestic in its defiance and anger.

"I hae not seen Peter Fae for a week," said John. "God knows that, bailie. I wad be the vera last man to hurt a hair o' his gray head; why he is Margaret's father!"

"Still, John, though we hae nae warrant to hold thee, we are beholden to do sae; an' thou maun come wi' us," said Bailie Inkster.

"Wrang has nae warrant at ony time, an' ye will no touch my lad," said Alison, rising and standing before her son.

"Come, dame, keep a still tongue."

"My tongue's no under thy belt, Tulloch; but it's weel kenned that since thou wranged us thou ne'er liked us."

"Mother, mother, dinna fash theesel'. It's naught at a' but a mistake; an' I'll gae wi' Bailie Inkster, if he's feared to tak my word."

"I could tak thy word fain enough, John--"

"But the thing isna possible, Inkster. Besides, if he were missing Monday morn, I, being i' some sort a relation, wad be under suspicion o' helping him awa."

"Naebody wad e'er suspect thee o' a helping or mercifu' deed, Tulloch. Indeed na!"

"Tak care, dame; thou art admitting it wad be a mercifu' deed. I heard Peter Fae say that John Sabay stabbed him, an' Ragon Torr and Hacon Flett saw John, as I understan' the matter."

"Mother," said John, "do thou talk to nane but God. Thou wilt hae to lead the prayer theesel' to-night; dinna forget me. I'm as innocent o' this matter as Christine is; mak up thy mind on that."

"God go wi' thee, John. A' the men i' Orkney can do nae mair than they may against thee."

"It's an unco grief an' shame to me," said Tulloch, "but the Sabays hae aye been a thorn i' the flesh to me, an' John's the last o' them, the last o' them!"

"Thou art makin' thy count without Providence, Tulloch. There's mair Sabays than Tullochs; for there's Ane for them that counts far beyont an' above a' that can be against them. Now, thou step aff my honest hearthstane--there is mair room for thee without than within."

Then John held his mother's and sister's hands a moment, and there was such virtue in the clasp, and such light and trust in their faces, that it was impossible for him not to catch hope from them. Suddenly Bailie Tulloch noticed that John was in his Sabbath-day clothes. In itself this was not remarkable on a Saturday night. Most of the people kept this evening as a kind of preparation for the Holy Day, and the best clothing and the festival meal were very general. But just then it struck the bailies as worth inquiring about.

"Where are thy warking-claes, John--the uniform, I mean, o' that steamship company thou sails for--and why hast na them on thee?"

"I had a visit to mak, an' I put on my best to mak it in. The ithers are i' my room."

"Get them, Christine."

Christine returned in a few minutes pale-faced and empty-handed. "They are not there, John, nor yet i' thy kist."

"I thought sae."

"Then God help me, sister! I know not where they are."

Even Bailie Inkster looked doubtful and troubled at this circumstance. Silence, cold and suspicious, fell upon them, and poor John went away half-bereft of all the comfort his mother's trust and Christine's look had given him.

The next day being Sabbath, no one felt at liberty to discuss the subject; but as the little groups passed one another on their way to church their solemn looks and their doleful shakes of the head testified to its presence in their thoughts. The dominie indeed, knowing how nearly impossible it would be for them not to think their own thoughts this Lord's day, deemed it best to guide those thoughts to charity. He begged every one to be kind to all in deep affliction, and to think no evil until it was positively known who the guilty person was.

Indeed, in spite of the almost overwhelming evidence against John Sabay, there was a strong disposition to believe him innocent. "If ye believe a' ye hear, ye may eat a' ye see," said Geordie Sweyn. "Maybe John Sabay killed old Peter Fae, but every maybe has a may-not-be." And to this remark there were more nods of approval than shakes of dissent.

But affairs, even with this gleam of light, were dark enough to the sorrowful family. John's wages had stopped, and the winter fuel was not yet all cut. A lawyer had to be procured, and they must mortgage their little cottage to do it; and although ten days had passed, Margaret Fae had not shown, either by word or deed, what was her opinion regarding John's guilt or innocence.

But Margaret, as before said, was naturally slow in all her movements, so slow that even Scotch caution had begun to call her cruel or careless. But this was a great injustice. She had weighed carefully in her own mind everything against John, and put beside it his own letter to her and her intimate knowledge of his character, and then solemnly sat down in God's presence to take such counsel as he should put into her heart. After many prayerful, waiting days she reached a conclusion which was satisfactory to herself; and she then put away from her every doubt of John's innocence, and resolved on the course to be pursued.

In the first place she would need money to clear the guiltless and to seek the guilty, and she resolved to continue her father's business. She had assisted him so long with his accounts that his methods were quite familiar to her; all she needed was some one to handle the rough goods, and stand between her and the rude sailors with whom the business was mainly conducted.

Who was this to be? Ragon Torr? She was sure Ragon would have been her father's choice. He had taken all charge of the funeral, and had since hung round the house, ready at any moment to do her service. But Ragon would testify against John Sabay, and she had besides an unaccountable antipathy to his having any nearer relation with her. "I'll ask Geordie Sweyn," she said, after a long consultation with her own slow but sure reasoning powers; "he'll keep the skippers an' farmers i' awe o' him; an' he's just as honest as any ither man."

So Geordie was sent for and the proposal made and accepted. "Thou wilt surely be true to me, Geordie?"

"As sure as death, Miss Margaret;" and when he gave her his great brawny hand on it, she knew her affairs in that direction were safe.

Next morning the shop was opened as usual, and Geordie Sweyn stood in Peter Fae's place. The arrangement had been finally made so rapidly that it had taken all Stromness by surprise. But no one said anything against it; many believed it to be wisely done, and those who did not, hardly cared to express dissatisfaction with a man whose personal prowess and ready hand were so well known.

The same day Christine received a very sisterly letter from Margaret, begging her to come and talk matters over with her. There were such obvious reasons why Margaret could not go to Christine, that the latter readily complied with the request; and such was the influence that this calm, cool, earnest girl had over the elder woman, that she not only prevailed upon her to accept money to fee the lawyer in John's defence, but also whatever was necessary for their comfort during the approaching winter. Thus Christine and Margaret mutually strengthened each other, and both cottage and prison were always the better for every meeting.