One Wrong Step.
Chapter VI.
 

Slowly the weary winter passed away. And just as spring was opening there began to be talk of Ragon Torr's going away. Margaret continued to refuse his addresses with a scorn he found it ill to bear; and he noticed that many of his old acquaintances dropped away from him. There is a distinct atmosphere about every man, and the atmosphere about Ragon people began to avoid. No one could have given a very clear reason for doing so; one man did not ask another why; but the fact needed no reasoning about, it was there.

One day, when Paul Calder was making up his spring cargoes, Ragon asked for a boat, and being a skilful sailor, he was accepted. But no sooner was the thing known, than Paul had to seek another crew.

"What was the matter?"

"Nothing; they did not care to sail with Ragon Torr, that was all."

This circumstance annoyed Ragon very much. He went home quite determined to leave Stromness at once and for ever. Indeed he had been longing to do so for many weeks, but had stayed partly out of bravado, and partly because there were few opportunities of getting away during the winter.

He went home and shut himself in his own room, and began to count his hoarded gold. While thus employed, there was a stir or movement under his feet which he quite understood. Some one was in the secret cellar, and was coming up. He turned hastily round, and there was Sandy Beg.

"Thou scoundrel!" and he fairly gnashed his teeth at the intruder, "what dost thou want here?"

"She'll be wanting money an' help."

Badly enough Sandy wanted both; and a dreadful story he told. He had indeed engaged himself at Wick for a whaling voyage, but at the last moment had changed his mind and deserted. For somewhere among the wilds of Rhiconich in Sutherland he had a mother, a wild, superstitious, half-heathen Highland woman, and he wanted to see her. Coming back to the coast, after his visit, he had stopped a night at a little wayside inn, and hearing some drovers talking of their gold in Gallic, a language which he well understood, he had followed them into the wild pass of Gualon, and there shot them from behind a rock. For this murder he had been tracked, and was now so closely pursued that he had bribed with all the gold he had a passing fishing-smack to drop him at Stromness during the night.

"She'll gae awa now ta some ither place; 'teet will she! An' she's hungry--an' unco dry;" all of which Sandy emphasized by a desperate and very evil look.

The man was not to be trifled with, and Ragon knew that he was in his power. If Sandy was taken, he would confess all, and Ragon knew well that in such case transportation for life and hard labor would be his lot. Other considerations pressed him heavily--the shame, the loss, the scorn of Margaret, the triumph of all his ill-wishers. No, he had gone too far to retreat.

He fed the villain, gave him a suit of his own clothes, and L50, and saw him put off to sea. Sandy promised to keep well out in the bay, until some vessel going North to Zetland or Iceland, or some Dutch skipper bound for Amsterdam, took him up. All the next day Ragon was in misery, but nightfall came and he had heard nothing of Sandy, though several craft had come into port. If another day got over he would feel safe; but he told himself that he was in a gradually narrowing circle, and that the sooner he leaped outside of it the better.

When he reached home the old couple who hung about the place, and who had learned to see nothing and to hear nothing, came to him and voluntarily offered a remark.

"Queer folk an' strange folk have been here, an' ta'en awa some claes out o' the cellar."

Ragon asked no questions. He knew what clothes they were--that suit of John Sabay's in which Sandy Beg had killed Peter Fae, and the rags which Sandy had a few hours before exchanged for one of his own sailing-suits. He needed no one to tell him what had happened. Sandy had undoubtedly bespoke the very vessel containing the officers in search of him, and had confessed all, as he said he would. The men were probably at this moment looking for him.

He lifted the gold prepared for any such emergency, and, loosening his boat, pulled for life and death towards Mayness Isle. Once in the rapid "race" that divides it and Olla from the ocean, he knew no boat would dare to follow him. While yet a mile from it he saw that he was rapidly pursued by a four-oared boat. Now all his wild Norse nature asserted itself. He forgot everything but that he was eluding his pursuers, and as the chase grew hotter, closer, more exciting, his enthusiasm carried him far beyond all prudence.

He began to shout or chant to his wild efforts some old Norse death-song, and just as they gained on him he shot into the "race" and defied them. Oars were useless there, and they watched him fling them far away and stand up with outstretched arms in the little skiff. The waves tossed it hither and thither, the boiling, racing flood hurried it with terrific force towards the ocean. The tall, massive figure swayed like a reed in a tempest, and suddenly the half despairing, half defying song was lost in the roar of the bleak, green surges. All knew then what had happened.

"Let me die the death o' the righteous," murmured one old man, piously veiling his eyes with his bonnet; and then the boat turned and went silently back to Stromness.

Sandy Beg was in Kirkwall jail. He had made a clean breast of all his crimes, and measures were rapidly taken for John Sabay's enlargement and justification. When he came out of prison Christine and Margaret were waiting for him, and it was to Margaret's comfortable home he was taken to see his mother. "For we are ane household now, John," she said tenderly, "an' Christine an' mother will ne'er leave me any mair."

Sandy's trial came on at the summer term. He was convicted on his own confession, and sentenced to suffer the penalty of his crime upon the spot where he stabbed Peter Fae. For some time he sulkily rejected all John's efforts to mitigate his present condition, or to prepare him for his future. But at last the tender spot in his heart was found. John discovered his affection for his half-savage mother, and promised to provide for all her necessities.

"It's only ta poun' o' taa, an' ta bit cabin ta shelter her she'll want at a'," but the tears fell heavily on the red, hairy hands; "an' she'll na tell her fat ill outsent cam to puir Sandy."

"Thou kens I will gie her a' she needs, an' if she chooses to come to Orkney--"

"Na, na, she wullna leave ta Hieland hills for naught at a'."

"Then she shall hae a siller crown for every month o' the year, Sandy."

The poor, rude creature hardly knew how to say a "thanks;" but John saw it in his glistening eyes and heard it in the softly-muttered words, "She was ta only are tat e'er caret for Santy Beg."

It was a solemn day in Stromness when he went to the gallows. The bells tolled backward, the stores were all closed, and there were prayers both in public and private for the dying criminal. But few dared to look upon the awful expiation, and John spent the hour in such deep communion with God and his own soul that its influence walked with him to the end of life.

And when his own sons were grown up to youths, one bound for the sea and the other for Marischal College, Aberdeen, he took them aside and told them this story, adding,

"An' know this, my lads: the shame an' the sorrow cam a' o' ane thing--I made light o' my mother's counsel, an' thought I could do what nane hae ever done, gather mysel' with the deil's journeymen, an' yet escape the wages o' sin. Lads! lads! there's nae half-way house atween right and wrang; know that."

"But, my father," said Hamish, the younger of the two, "thou did at the last obey thy mother."

"Ay, ay, Hamish; but mak up thy mind to this: it isna enough that a man rins a gude race; he maun also start at the right time. This is what I say to thee, Hamish, an' to thee, Donald: fear God, an' ne'er lightly heed a gude mother's advice. It's weel wi' the lads that carry a mother's blessing through the warld wi' them."